Ah, yes – the sand…

We’re a month into school and autumn has officially arrived in Moscow. This week we could see our breath at tennis practice! It’s been a whirlwind getting up to speed, teaching five different classes and getting to know the IB Visual Arts program but I’m loving it. So when my friend suggested a long weekend meet up in Dubai, I jumped for it!

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Having never been to the United Arab Emirates (of which there are 7 “states”), I didn’t know what to expect. I knew of the Burj Khalifa (highest building in the world, a smidge of it visible above right). I knew the cities had gone up very quickly, fueled by oil money. I knew there was a monarchy and I also knew there was a mall with an indoor ski slope. Otherwise – no real idea of what I was jumping into.

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Turns out all of those facts were true, including the ski slope. Malls and shopping are a big part of life in the UAE. Dubai has two large ones, the Dubai Mall (replete with an ice rink and aquarium) and the Mall of the Emirates (ski slope land). My friend Emmalee had told me that if you were looking for a western store chain, it was most likely available in Dubai. We proved this logic true by having brunch at IHOP on our first morning there.

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Living in Russia, which does not have access to many western brands, makes you oddly nostalgic for the comforts of home. Despite the fact that I would pretty much never choose to spend time at a mall when I’m in the States, we whittled away a few hours shopping for gifts and enjoying the sights, such as the huge aquarium below.

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The ice rink was hosting a number of birthday parties – made evident by the shrieks of delight as we passed. When it’s 102F outside in September, an afternoon at the rink seems a surreal experience.

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My friend Emmalee lives in Saudi Arabia, a good friend who I worked with in Seoul.

As Emmalee had flown in from Saudi Arabia, she brought with her a pair of abayas for us to wear when visiting the Grand Mosque. As a foreigner in Saudi, she wears the abaya whenever she’s not on the school compound on which she lives and works (an island that is 3 miles x 3 miles). Her she is modeling the more stylish of the two options. I myself had the chance to wear the simple black one that her husband affectionately calls “the flying squirrel”. It is as attractive as it sounds.

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Given our limited time and our want to catch up rather than stressing about plans, we booked two small group excursions via Viator – a “desert dinner” (common in the Middle East) and a visit to Abu Dhabi, the neighboring emirate to Dubai. The desert dinner was a 7 hour event, including pick up at our hotel, transport to the dunes near the Oman border, and “dune bashing”, an activity that involved riding in an SUV with a steel reinforced frame up, over, and down the massive dunes in a national park. Much like on the Cape, our driver let some air out of the tires at the highway’s edge and we met up with a convoy of 18 cars, all on the same tour as us. Here’s Emm below modeling the latest in Middle East explorer chic (ie. covered shoulders and knees, light airy attire). No abayas or coverage required in Dubai.

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The dunes were absolutely gorgeous. The tracks of the wind made mountains beyond mountains and we rolled with the best of them. I was lucky enough to have scored the front passenger’s seat so I got the best view in the house! Like flying over a rollercoaster in your own private car. Picture a snowboarding bowl and us at a nearly 45 degree angle spinning around it. Not every car made it through with stomachs’ intact but we rocked it.

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Halfway through the dune bashing, we stopped at a local camel farm. The camels were very friendly and well cared for, though they are either current or past racing champions. Yes, camel racing is a big sport in Dubai and these guys can be sold for top dollar depending on their success rate.

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If you can see the horizon in the background, we were surrounded by nothing but sand out there. Very easy to see how you could lose your way trekking across all that sand and air.

We reached camp and took in a falcon show. We had our hands henna-ed, in true tourist fashion, and settled down to enjoy the sunset. It was still blazing hot but no AC out there! 100+ degrees at sunset will put you into instant slo-mo.

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To Emm’s delight (Saudi being a dry country), our camp had a bar! Nothing like a G+T to take the edge off. I always think of the British in Jaipur when drinking one, though we thankfully did not have to worry about warding off malaria with our choice of bevvies.

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As night fell, we enjoyed a number of dance routines, including sword and belly dancing, an amalgamation of cultures thrown adopted into one show, not specifically from Dubai. Dinner was delicious – hummus, olives, tabouli, and all the baklava one could want.

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The next day we were again picked up for our excursion and ferried off to Abu Dhabi, the emirate next door. While Dubai is a playground for the rich with the best nightlife, Abu Dhabi is rumored to be where the money is at. Architectural wealth was certainly on display.

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The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is only 12 years old but it already encompasses the grandeur of a UNESCO World Heritage site. It took 11 years to complete and boasts the best of the best – marble from Italy, tiles from Turkey, and gold on every minaret and dome.

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As an active mosque, women are expected to wear an abaya and cover their hair. Men do not have this expectation but you can see one man in white wearing a thawb, popular attire among men in the Middle East.

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The site featured 82 domes and countless minarets (the tower seen here).
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The pillar columns represent the trunk of a palm tree, which were once used to create buildings in the region.
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The artist in me could not get over the gorgeous inlaid Italian marble or all colors and shapes.

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As mentioned, wearing an abaya and head covering is expected for women visiting the mosque. Though I’d covered my head, knees, and shoulders at mosques in Turkey and churches in Moscow and Rome, I’d never worn a full abaya before. I actually found it surprisingly liberating and very comfortable. Liberating in the sense that I wasn’t concerned with how my outfit fit and I could move it around to get air flow, which I was desperate for in the 100+ degree heat.

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Gorgeous Turkish tiles.
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Inside the mosque – only foreigners are allowed to take pictures. The lattice work was even more stunning than it appears here.

Our second stop of the day was the true impetus of our travel to Abu Dhabi – the brand spanking new Louvre Abu Dhabi! I’d heard of it being built and certainly over the hubbub surrounding the purchase of an is-it-or-isn’t-it controversial da Vinci painting in recent years.

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Twombly’s in the foyer…

The museum is heavy on cultural anthropology. In fact, it is comprised of 12 sections, each one a slice across continents and cultures, categorized by a defining heading – ie. Ancient Era or Religions of the World.

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I really dug how a scroll from the Etruscans could be alongside an inlaid box from Japan, both being created during the same time period but continents apart. It really put a grand art history timeline into perspective and started some wild conversations seeing unusual items juxtaposed.

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A major highlight for me was seeing Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps in person. I’m never one to take a picture in front of a work but since I teach it to my students every year, this one deserved an exception.

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For fun, here is the contemporary version I share with students when we discuss plagiarism versus appropriation, done by an artist I greatly admire, Kehinde Wiley of President Obama’s official portrait fame.

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I could have stayed all day. When it came time to go, I ran into my Associate Principal from Moscow who was visiting for professional development! My friend Emmalee also ran into coworkers from Saudi so I think it’s fair to say it’s an equally small world for international teachers abroad.

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Emm lost in a contemporary art installation/maze.

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A big ticket item in our hotel search was a pool. Knowing this would probably be my last gasp of summer, we booked at the Conrad Dubai. A word to the wise – the room was cheap but the food/drinks were not! But there’s nothing like enjoying a drink poolside and we milked it for all it was worth.

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All too soon it was time to return to Moscow and my real life here. This kind of getaway is definitely not something I do regularly but was totally worth the effort and beyond. Sand in my shoes, I headed back to Russia…

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This one was certainly happy to see me 🙂

Up next, I’m off to London for an art teacher conference and to catch a showing of The Cursed Child! Pics and stories to come…

Balkan Road Trip: Part 1

It’s been a busy few weeks here in Moscow. Just before I flew back, I learned that I would be taking on the high school art position full time, giving me five new classes to plan and students I hadn’t seen since their Grade 7 year. We’re two weeks in and I’m really enjoying being back at the high school level. The kids are really dedicated and it’s just fun seeing them take to new techniques and medium so quickly. It’s also a trip to see how they’ve changed (or haven’t) three years on…

I wanted to share the beginning of my road trip story, the portion from Split, Croatia to Mostar, Bosnia. The natural beauty of the region and the warmth of the people is what sits at the forefront of my memories. I can’t wait to go back.

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It’s been nearly a year since my friends Sarah and Ryan first suggested this road trip, as they were headed to a wedding in Sarajavo. I was curious what Split had to offer and have always wanted to see Sarajevo. So when school let out at the end of June, I hopped a flight from Moscow to Split. For the better part of a decade, Croatia has been Europe’s hotspot for international tourists. Separated from Italy by the relatively small Adriatic Sea, the country is known for it’s seafood, cliffside vineyards, and as a filming destination for many episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

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Our first stop was Diocletian’s Palace, the 4th century retirement home of the Roman emperor. He only lived in the completed palace for a handful of years but the walls and ruins are still very much the center of Old Town Split. We visited the site during the day but also at night, looking to escape the scorching heatwave moving across Europe.

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The warm light on the walls glows against the blue suede night sky.
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An oculus inside the compound. Archers would rain arrows down upon invaders trapped in this atrium.
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Night markets abound, featuring both groceries and souvenirs. Gelato was a staple of our wanderings!

Croatia’s seashore is famous the world over for it’s gorgeous turquoise water. Not far from our rented apartment was a nature reserve with a public beach open to all.

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Sarah and I beating the heat – the water really is that turquoise!

We toured the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, stopping for gelato both morning and night.

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This little one, only two, held up extremely well despite the heat and change of pace! She was a champ from start to finish.

The boardwalk in Split has a French Riviera look to it. While Diocletian’s Palace (seen in the background) once marked the waterline, the shore is now a large marina, serving both yachts and ferries, the latter of which take off for a number of coastal islands nearly every hour.

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We hopped one of those ferries for a day trip to Hvar, a popular tourist town with a fort to climb and delicious seafood to enjoy. We swam off the rocks in the harbor, again attempting to beat the heat. Hvar had some quaint side streets and, once you escaped the tourist paths, proved charming and picturesque.

Renting a car, we headed out to Mostar, planning to take our time along the way. My friend Sarah had done a wonderful job breaking up the journey to keep everyone, including the two year old, ocupado.

Klis was our first stop, just 8km outside of Split itself. Perched among the cliffs, this lookout castle dates back to the 10th century, with vertical drops enough to make your knees weak.

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A massive highlight of the trip for me were the Kravice Waterfalls, just over the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Stunningly beautiful and super refreshing as the temps were over 100 degrees that day. As we walked down the stone path to the falls, we could feel the mist cooling our legs.

 

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We rolled into Mostar in the late afternoon and it was immediately evident that we were in a different country. From the minarets dotting the skyline to the guy we paid to watch our car, it was clear we were not in Croatia anymore.

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Our guesthouse was just to the right of this yellow building, giving us an ace breakfast perch to watch the traffic on the famed Ottoman bridge.
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Parts of Mostar seemed right out of the 1980s; browns and dusty marigolds dotted the streets.
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Beautiful family ❤ Ryan, Isabella, and Sarah in Mostar, June 2019.
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Old Town Mostar was charming but slightly challenging to navigate thanks to the smooth stone walkways, well-trodden by the many visitors who had come before.

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Neither the food nor the view could be beat at our restaurant along the river. The cool of the water through the ravine was also a plus, granting us reprieve from the heat as the shadows grew long.

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This sign in English reminds visitors of the terrible atrocities suffered by the people of Mostar during the war. Mostar’s facades are also pockmarked by bullet holes and many buildings lie in relative ruin, with plants and trees sprouting where walls once stood.

As night fell, we heard the muezzin call echo across the banks of the river. Sitting out on the guesthouse balcony, we watched the lights pop on like fireflies dancing on the riverside.

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Our one night in Mostar was plenty of time to enjoy a delicious meal, peruse the market stalls, and break up the journey. After a good night’s sleep, we packed up and made tracks for Sarajevo along the most beautiful stretch of highway I can recall…

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To finish the story of this journey, find Part 2 here.