The journey of this trip began almost exactly one year ago. Disgruntled that I had to work my 9-5 over the Christmas holiday, I woke up Christmas morning and started the day the way I usually would ... grouchily scratching my left boob and checking my social media feeds. What I didn't know was that this morning routine would end much differently than the norm. As I'm scrolling through my Instagram feed, I notice hype around flights and some apparent travel deal. The details, I had yet to really look into through my sleepy eyes. I'm slow to react to the growing online chatter and the number of people posting, because if you follow the standard travel blogs, then you know, there's always a travel deal. Except ... this was the deal of all deals. Long story short, after the hype around the day died down, I was left with a round-trip, non-stop, flight out of JFK direct to Abu Dhabi, UAE. Oh, by the way, did I mention the total cost after taxes was $177!! Talk about deal of a lifetime!
With the details set, this past November, I boarded my flight to celebrate my birthday halfway around the world. 14 long hours later ... and God, I mean long as hell ... I landed in Abu Dhabi International Airport. Stepping outside, the heat hit me all at once. As a caribbean girl, I was desperately waiting for a cool saving grace breeze that never came. Instead, the "breeze" felt like someone left a hot oven door open, then turned on a fan. 1st thought? "Oh, God ... I'm officially in the desert!" LOL! ... With little time to adjust, I arrived to my hotel, checked in, showered, and three hours later, stood in the middle of the desert.
Solo tripping on my own from my small NYC apartment to a thousands year old desert was beyond what I could describe. The beauty in its simplicity completely stuck me. Here? .. In this place of just sand, wind, and utter quiet, I found peace. I cried .. not just because I was completely nauseous from my 14 hour flight & probably should have planned some downtime before traipsing into the desert .... but because I had made it and fulfilled this dream I never knew I had, until I'd gotten there. Stress of my daily life gone, I was free.
Sitting on the sand worlds away from home has a way of humbling you. A way of reminding you how small my daily concerns are in the larger scheme of life. The world is so much bigger than we can even imagine, with beauty and life even in the emptiness. After a few more introspective, deep in my feelings moments contemplating the universe, I decided to add a little adventure to my desert excursion and try my hand at riding a camel! After surviving riding horseback down the side of a rocky ass volcano in Costa Rica, I figured a smooth camel ride in the desert would be a piece of cake ... not so much! After a quick drive further into the desert, I found "Asim" the camel sitting in the sand waiting me. Immediately as I approached, I could tell he was grumpy pants ... grunting and groaning as I got closer. First thought? .. "Great, of all the camels in Saudi Arabia, I got the angry one who probably has plan to throw me off his hump the first chance he gets *frowns* " ... Thankfully, he calmed just enough for me to get on his back. A combination of a firm hand grip on the saddle and a tight squeeze of my thighs made surviving Asim as he stood pretty easy. Also, in general, when riding animal back, I recommend, comfortable loose clothing that you can easily maneuver in. In my case I decided on my "Laba Kupu" romper for its billowy loose fit for breeze and comfort. With the hard part down, the ride was pretty cool ... definitely one of those, "holy crap am I really riding a camel in the Middle East?!" moments.
After a few laps and watching the sunset it was time to wrap up my desert adventure.
I was led over to a desert compound where a great traditional dinner was set. Grilled meats, cheeses, vegetables, traditional Arab teas (that are made unsweetened and rather sweetened with natural dates fruits) were served. Did I mention how nauseous I was from my flight? Yup, by this time, I was so motion sick that I couldn't even imagine stomach anything, despite how much I absolutely love food! Again, this trip was the furthest I'd ever flown in my life! I had no idea how a flight like this would impact my body, but word of advice? Don't make my mistake, schedule in some jet lag / recoup time. Super upset, but the accommodations were great and the hosts so welcoming.
The next day was filled with all culture. Anyone who knows me, knows I'm a super culture geek and while I prefer to travel free-spirited style with no hard and fast plans, I knew for sure I booked my ticket just to see this. The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. This architectural wonder serves as a memorial to the late Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, often called the "Father of the UAE" and the uniter of the individual local Arab states forming what we now know today as the United Arab Emerites.
In visiting the Grand Mosque the next day, as a woman, I dressed in the traditional fashion of modesty in Islamic culture. My "abaya" (long dress meant to cover a woman's form from wrist to ankle) and "sheila" (head covering to cover my hair) was worn specifically for this visit. The traditional / formal abaya and sheila are typically all black (again, demonstrating a modest nature), however, I wanted to take a fashionable spin on this look and express my culture. The dress made of blue patterned Kente cloth from Ghana, West Africa, the homeland of my dad ... headwrap fabric from the West African country of Benin.
While, I myself am not Muslim, coming to this place, there's this sense of coming to holy ground. Songs of the Quran vibrate throughout the mosque 24 hours a day, to honor the sheik with sounds of peace, as his mausoleum and final resting place is on the grounds as well. The outer domes and accents of the mosque are covered in gold, while the mosque itself is crafted from marble, Mother of Pearl, gems, and hand-painting. For additional history on the construction of the Grand Mosque click here.
Arriving at nearly close to noon, I was lucky enough to have a full walking tour of the mosque's interior. The inside is just as gorgeous the exterior. More gold accents, crystal chandeliers shaped into upside-down palm trees with bejeweled dates, hand-woven carpets (which we removed our shoes to stand on when entering), spacious domes, lots of light, and most notably ... the hush of reverence. Our gracious tour guide took the time to not only explain aspects of the mosque, but the importance of this prayer space to the islamic culture.
For example in the image above, our guide explains the streaming of cream and gold imagery throughout the interior of the Grand Mosque symbolizes the rivers of "milk and honey" practitioners of Islam believe will be found in paradise. It's interesting to note that this belief of "milk and honey" can also be found in Christianity as well. Additionally, the inner walls of the mosque are ornately decorated with flower detailing containing Arabic lettering inside within. Here, each flower identifies all of the 99 names of God /Allah. With each name, God is described as: merciful, loving, kind, forgiving, etc .... however, near the very top, one lone flower is left blank and unnamed. This is purposefully done to highlight man's limited understanding of God and his/her magnitude. She goes on to say, as human,s we cannot fathom all the the ways in which God can manifest, and thusly? ... the last characteristic / name is left empty to symbolize this room for the infinite ways of presentation. I absolutely love this idea. Of the many flaws of humanity, one of our biggest is assuming we know and can quantify everything. Leaving this space of worship gave me a newfound respect and appreciation for the Islamic faith. I was beyond grateful for the time my tour guide gave the group that afternoon.
Finally, to wrap up my day of culture, I headed to "Heritage Village." Here, I was able to get a glimpse of ancient life in the old U.A.E territories. The set up was in the form of an old village, with booths and cottages hosting different aspects of life. From desert tent dwellings and handmade garments / accessories crafted by traditional means, to old relics, and foods of the period, it was incredible to see how, out of the sun scorched desert, life formed and thrived without modern conveniences. For an anthropology dork like myself, I literally could have spent an entire day here.
At the end of it all, before boarding my return flight home, like every vacation before, I made time for meditation and reflection. I'm not sure what it is, but something completely magical happens for me when I'm up early enough to watch the sunrise .. and so, with my friends and loved ones asleep 14 hours away back in the States, but the sun dawning in my corner of the world, I poured out my thoughts, goals, wishes, appreciations, and feelings of happiness in my journal. A hotel view like the one I had will definitely do that to you. Inspiration is bound to happen.
On this journey, I had so much to be thankful for and the fact that I was able to coordinate with childhood friends to make this trek with me just made it doubly great!
A lot of culture .. a bit of fashion .. good food .. and relaxation with good friends. What could be better? ... Till the next trip ... The journey continues!