Abu Dhabi: it’s real, and it’s spectacular (Pt. 2)

while there were so many memorable moments on this trip, our venture out to the desert was by far my favorite part of our time in the UAE.

dad decided to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV for the excursion, and at first I thought this was a little overkill, but soon after we pulled off the main highway, I realized how wrong I was. we were embarking on an hour and a half drive straight into the desert on roads made completely of sand, carved out of the dunes surrounding us. it was sunny and warm as we drove along, windows down, taking it all in. and then, there they were – THE CAMELS. the enormous creatures dotted the dunes in packs and looked on, curious, as we drove by. I had been waiting the whole trip to see these animals, and it was love at first sight. they were just so damn CUTE! I should mention that this was actually my second time being in the physical presence of camels. years before, when I first moved to Nashville, I had gone to the annual Tennessee Renaissance Fair, and the only thing I cared to do there was ride a camel (still not sure what camels have to do with a renaissance fair, but I wasn’t complaining). the ride was not exactly ideal, though, because I had been forced to share the hump-seat with a stranger, a sourpuss who I very distinctly remember, because she did not enjoy the ride nearly as much as I did. I made the best of that brief ride around the pen, and ever since, have craved a better camel experience. I even have photographic evidence of both this momentous ride and miss sourpuss herself, but my wide smile says it all:

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another thing that struck me as we started getting further and further outside of the city was how poverty-stricken these desolate desert areas were. it illustrated how huge the disparity is between the wealthiest and poorest of the country. there were run-down shacks and decrepit trailers, stray trash blown into piles by the whipping wind, and small camel farms scattered sparingly across the dunes – reminiscent of a time long before the modern country as we know it. the opulence of cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai was a stark contrast to the derelict countryside. despite this, I much preferred being in the desert. it was vast and never-ending – just sand as far as the eye could see, all the way to the horizon. it felt like we had left one world for another; the shiny features of the city’s many buildings and skyscrapers, complexly-designed to defy architectural principles and plain physics, were in total opposition to the almost water-like fluidity and simplicity of the rolling sand dunes. the landscape looked like white-colored waves with shadowy hollows molded by the wind.

we continued our dusty drive into the desert, and it wasn’t long before we were making pit stops every few feet to say hello to the camels who had wandered to the roadside. we spotted one particular camel, lounging on the ground by herself, and stopped to get out and investigate. she was calm and unfazed by our presence, just sitting on her haunches, taking a load off. we tried to feed her an apple, but she didn’t even feign interest in it. I didn’t dare get too close, but was in the middle of asking her why she didn’t want the apple when dad took this picture of us (can you even stand that little tuft of fur on her hump?!!?):

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when we finally arrived at the Arabian Nights Village, we checked in at the front desk, which was inside a castle-like building at the entrance to the property, where we were greeted with dates, fresh fruit, and a friendly staff. there was no WiFi, which I thought was a welcome change, and heightened the sense of remoteness. this was unlike any traditional resort I’ve ever been to, and was quaint and lovely. it was our little desert oasis for the next 24 hours, and I couldn’t have been happier. plus, we pretty much had the place to ourselves, which made it even better. I couldn’t wait to see the rest of the resort, so while dad got our room key (which, by the way, was an actual key – not an electronic card), I walked out to the main part of the compound. there were little huts, shaded by palm trees, and stone pathways in the sand that looped around the estate. I found myself pondering the difficulty of building a resort quite literally in the middle of the desert. the whole place perfectly encapsulated all of my desert village dreams:

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the first thing on my agenda was to take the long-awaited camel redemption ride. I was so excited I could barely stand it, but we went first to drop our bags off at the double-room hut, where all five of us were staying together. the rooms were decorated with deep oranges and reds, dark wood, and bright whites – rustic desert chic, if you will. although I hadn’t really thought about what to expect, it was everything I could have wanted. there were more dates on a little silver platter covered with a matching lid, as well as a soda-stocked mini fridge, and big comfy cushions set up on the floor to sit and relax on. here was the main room:

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I was anxious to visit with the camels, so we didn’t dilly dally too long in the room. I had to wait a little longer, though, because another couple had gotten to the camels first. so instead, mom headed to the pool to enjoy the last few hours of sun, while dad, Seth, and Eli decided to try sand-boarding down the dunes. I wandered around for awhile and then returned to watch the boys mostly eating shit instead of successfully sand-boarding (although to be fair, we later learned that wax is a critical component for successfully sliding down the sand, so they were at a slight disadvantage).

I was giddy by the time we walked up to the seated beasts, ready to take our ride. mom and dad had stayed behind while Seth, Eli, and I walked up to where the two camels sat in the sand, adorned with cloth saddles and little snout-covers. Eli got his own camel, while Seth and I climbed up on the second as it was still seated – him on the back and me on the front, with the hump gently jutting up between us. our camel attendant warned us to hold on tight as the camel rose up to its feet, and I was wholly unprepared for the way we sharply lurched back and forth as the camel came to its full standing position. it was exhilarating, and I was in heaven as we slowly meandered into the dunes. even just a short distance away, I was shocked at how you could so easily get lost in this vast land of sand. the resort walls quickly disappeared behind the dunes as we continued our journey. out there in the desert, everything looked the same – no landmarks except for a few ghaf trees – and I was glad that our guide knew where we were going. the ghaf trees themselves are a miracle of nature, with root systems reaching as far into the sand as 90 feet to find water. our trek was not long, but was nothing short of epic. being on the backside of a camel was hands-down the best part of my trip, and here I am enjoying the ride:

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we got back and let mom and dad take a turn, laughing as we watched them pitch forward just like we had as the camels rose to their feet. after our camel rides, we went back to our little hut to drink some wine and wait for dinner. our whole trip up until that point had been go, go, go, and it was a nice change of pace to sit down together, with no phones to distract us, and just chill. dinner was a fucking buffet-style feast and we devoured plate upon plate of various fresh salads and grilled-to-order meats like chicken and lamb, and of course, creamy hummus with pita. we drank more wine, seated on the ground at these long tables with cushions under us, and enjoyed the live entertainment of an oud player and, later, a lone belly dancer. here’s the dinner area, with the buffet along the backside and the oud musician playing:

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after dinner, it was dark and quiet, but there were large spotlights along the perimeter of the property, near the giant dunes where the boys had been sand-boarding earlier, so we decided to take a hike up to star gaze. I swear it was like being in an episode of Planet Earth. in the absence of the sun, the dunes appeared to be this burnt-orange color, and the shadows against them were pitch black. walking up to the top of the tallest dune was no small feat in the sand, but looking out over the expanse of earth around us was worth the walk. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life, and we all sat around humbly in awe, staring up and around. Eli had carried one of the sand-boards up with us, and he and dad took cautious turns testing it out again. they decided to start using the board as a sand sled instead and that ended up working much better. mom insisted on taking a turn, and we watched her fly down the dune and disappear into the darkness below. the worrier in me was a little uneasy when the spotlights shut off for the night and we were left on top of this gigantic mound of sand, and I found myself slightly concerned about the fact that if any of us were injured or had an emergency, we were hours away from civilization. I didn’t let that fear ruin the once-in-a-lifetime experience I knew we were having, though.

the next morning we got up early to take a camel ride before breakfast, but this time we went all together. I felt like a pro at this point, and reveled in every moment of our trek, knowing we would soon be saying goodbye. the camel attendant was kind enough to capture this group photo:

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we were sad to leave the Arabian Nights Village, and took our time getting home. the drive back was much like the drive there, stopping to spend as much time as possible with our new camel friends before we were back to the bustling city. I truly felt like I was living my best life with those massive, docile, and curious animals. each one we’d encountered seemed to have their own little personality, some more bold than others. we even saw a brand-new baby camel, with its umbilical cord still on and flapping in the breeze as it followed closely behind its mama. they were honestly the cutest creatures, and now I want to live in the desert with them forever. pretty sure I found my new spirit animal:

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Abu Dhabi: it’s real, and it’s spectacular (Pt. 1)

our Arabian adventure started in Atlanta.

we immediately ran into trouble after arriving at the airport, when the airline we were flying (Air Canada – more on our experience with them later…) informed us that our carry-on bags had to be 21.5 x 15.5 x 9 inches, including wheels and handle, which is actually significantly smaller than most standard carry-on bags. we had packed meticulously so that we could carry everything on and not check any bags (ahead of us were three flights with two layovers, and we didn’t want to risk the off-chance that our luggage would get lost in a foreign country). after a little re-arranging, my suitcase just barely fit into the metal-barred slot they use to confirm your carry-on is compact enough. Seth’s suitcase just barely didn’t fit on the wheel/handle ends. so what does he do? he proceeds to dismantle his $3 Goodwill suitcase piece by piece, while the airline employees look on horrified. the handles came off easier than expected, but when we tried to squeeze the amputated suitcase into the test slot, it still wouldn’t fit. so he turned to the wheels, but those were stubborn. after a minute of tugging and tearing, we realized ripping the wheels out would just result in ruining the structural integrity of the suitcase itself. so after long last, we had to admit checking the damn thing was the only option.

by this point, Seth was sweating and cursing, but our luck was about to turn around. we headed to the airport lounge and were able to use one of Seth’s fancy credit cards to gain access to the VIP area. I’d never had the pleasure or fortune of being in an airport lounge, but this place was like stumbling into airport heaven. free food and a free open bar. the snack options were plentiful, including but not limited to hummus, veggies, cheese, crackers, sandwiches, soup, chips, popcorn, even gummy bears. and this shit was stocked constantly by the attendants. the bar was no joke, either. so naturally I drank champagne and ate all day while Seth worked and we waited for our flight. I felt like we didn’t belong in this holy place, but I was thoroughly enjoying it. I’m spoiled now because a normal airport experience will never again suffice. the rest of our 19-hour travel day went along fairly smooth with a few minor hiccoughs here and there.

after arriving in Abu Dhabi, and an expedient experience at customs, we were relieved that Seth’s handle-less bag had made the Toronto/London connections with us. it was 2am local time, and mom and dad were kind enough to drive to the airport to come get us. there was no time to rest, though, because after swinging by their apartment to drop off our bags and pick up Eli, we were on our way to watch the Super Bowl at the only American sports bar in town: Stars & Bars, baby. I won’t go into the well-known details of the game, but the bottom-line was that our team didn’t win, which was a big bummer. the outcome, however, was not going to hinder our good time. we polished off a few buckets of Anchor Steam and a bottle of wine for good measure, and left the bar in broad daylight around 7am to go home and crash.

after what I’ll call an extended nap, we got up to start sight-seeing. our first stop was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. this place was nothing short of majestic. before going in, though, mom and I were told that our long-sleeves and maxi-dresses were still considered inappropriate, so we were forced to wear the “abayas” they supplied for visitors who violated the strict dress code. we wanted to be respectful, so we didn’t put up a fight. plus, twinning. we were required to take our shoes off before entering the mosque’s perimeter, too. the whole thing was built in white marble, including the ground, which was cold on my bare feet. I can’t say enough about how stunning this religious monument is. the architecture of the building consists mainly of massive domes staccato-ed by these tall, piercing spires (can you tell I’m an architectural expert?).

as we walked around the large marble courtyard, every angle was a new, equally beautiful, view. we were surrounded by white columns decorated with ornate, intricate floral designs and pure gold detailing throughout. once inside, the mosque boasts the largest carpet in the world, 60,570 square feet in total, weighing 35 tons, and every inch of it was colorful and complexly designed. in the main halls, there hung giant chandeliers, each made with hundreds of glistening Swarovski crystals. we’d hit the mosque at just the right time, too – leading up to sunset. so, as the light waned, it revealed even more stunning views of the large looming spires and domes. once the sun had fully disappeared, a series of lights came on to flood the building in purple and gold tones. it was almost like seeing two completely different, but structurally-identical buildings, it was such a stark difference from the white shining marble to the midnight-blue hues. I was truly mesmerized. because I won’t even pretend that my words do the mosque’s magic any justice, here are some pictures:

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and finally, the #moneyshot:

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even the pictures don’t do it justice.

we practically had to pry ourselves away from the sight of the mosque, but our stomachs were aching. in between the mosque and dinner, we stopped at the Emirates Palace, where Sheikh Zayed and his family lived during his reign. compared to the mosque, it was equally extravagant. I was starting to gather that extravagance was a common theme in this country. even in the short time we’d been there, I had seen the same face on sides of numerous buildings and billboards, and learned that this famous face belonged to Sheikh Zayed himself. I had to do a little research to understand what a Sheikh was and who Zayed was, but now I know that he was essentially the UAE’s first president and ruled from 1971 to his death in 2004. he is beloved by all, and is credited with ushering in the 21st century for the citizens of the UAE. he was very progressive and is responsible for the young country’s success and rise to prominence. here is the only good picture we got at the palace, and it happens to be with his highness himself:

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pretty handsome, if you ask me. but I’m partial to beards.

after our short visit and a quick drink at the palace, we left to get food. we went to a Lebanese restaurant and gorged ourselves on a feast of hummus, tabbouleh, pita, shish tawook chicken, eggplant fattoush, and other various shared dishes. stuffed, we made our way home and went to bed early.

I had a beehive here inside my heart

poem by david white

this week’s been a doozy. some days you take a few steps forward and other days take you farther back than you wanted to go. I took more than a few steps backward this week when I got a visit from my old friend shame.

I’ve gotten fairly familiar with my shame-triggers (thank you, therapy) but still, they creep up on me when I least expect it and send me into what I call “the sneaky shame spiral” (an homage to my absolute favorite blog, Hyperbole and a Half, and the gal behind the blog, Allie Brosh). maybe you know the feeling. some of my shame-triggers include:

  • not living up to the expectations I’ve set for myself (or expectations I perceive others have of me)
  • disappointing others (hello, crazy)
  • making mistakes/failing at pretty much anything (it’s the stupid perfectionist in me)
  • not being able to control my emotions (hormones, amiright ladies?)
  • not being able to adapt to change quickly enough (am i the only one who likes a little predictability and routine?!)

usually something happens to make me feel like I’m losing the uphill battle with one of these totally irrational and impossible aspirations in some way (really setting myself up to fail), and that’s when the sneaky shame spiral sets in. sometimes it’s slow and gradual, building up for weeks or months, and sometimes it’s instantaneous. I never recognize it in the moment, though. I know I don’t feel like myself, but it’s only when I’ve gone too far down and start coming back up that I see it for what it was. I start thinking that the world and everyone in it is against me; I feel like everything i do is wrong; like all the decisions i make are bad ones; I lose perspective altogether; I convince myself that I really am an all-around shitty person; I start playing the blame game; I get WAY into my own head and forget that sometimes I can’t trust what my brain tells me because it is unintentionally sabotaging me and my happiness (side-note: there’s research out there about how when we are experiencing shame, our brains tell us all kinds of crazy things in a biological effort to keep us safe. the vastness and power of my consciousness constantly surprises and scares me). and that’s when it simply spirals out of control and I’m drowning in the deep end of shame, splashing around, desperately searching for the ladder to pull myself back out. and let me tell ya folks, it ain’t pretty.

self-work is no stranger to me, but I realized through this bout with the sneaky shame spiral that I’ve been approaching it all wrong lately. here I’ve been thinking it’s a matter of changing myself, and to some extent that may be true, but really I think it’s more about changing the way I respond to myself and changing the way I deal with (and try to accept) the shame-triggers and the underlying shame itself.

so why the fuck am I sharing all this ugly shit? mostly as a tool to help me process the week I just had so I can learn from it, but also because I don’t think we talk about this kind of thing enough, and maybe I’m not the only one dealing with it, and maybe sharing my experiences and being honest about something I struggle with will help someone else. and beyond that, I wonder how others deal with the sneaky shame spiral? I know my personal method involves things like

  • journaling
  • a lot of crying
  • endlessly watching the office (only episodes with Michael Scott will do)
  • snuggling with my kitty
  • yoga
  • time by myself

I still feel pretty immature in my spiritual journey, but prayer helps, too. I’d like to think that some day I’ll get far enough in my self-work to shake the shame, and truly get out of my own damn way. all I know is, as long as I’m taking steps of any kind, I’m headed in the right direction and one step closer to that day.

p.s.: this poem (by David Whyte) was given to me the day the sneaky shame spiral brought me down, and I hated it; I felt like it was taunting me for not being able to forgive myself for my failures and flaws. but now that I’ve climbed my way out, I find it to be quite lovely. to me it says, take the brokenness and turn it into something beautiful. and that’s what I’ll try to do.

p.p.s.: my girl Brene Brown defines the difference between shame and guilt like this – guilt=I did something bad; shame=I am bad. it’s an important distinction.

p.p.p.s.: forgive yourself for everything (I always need that reminder) 💓

Coming soon…

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two years ago, in January 2016, one of my goals for the new year was to start a blog. so I bought the domain (side-note: my first choice of birdistheword.COM was already claimed by an avian specialist in Illinois, who owns a bird sanctuary where they specialize in raising birds, and yes, I have stalked them, because let’s be honest, fluffy little baby birds are the cutest and I actually don’t feel bad for anyone who may accidentally go to their site instead of mine) and slapped a theme together with a few stock photos, published a place-holder blog titled “Coming soon…” and then abandoned the whole thing for two years. to be fair to myself, I have been noting different blog ideas in my journal and notes on my phone, so at least it’s been present in my mind over those two years. part of what kept stopping me was this arbitrary notion that first I needed to figure out what the blog’s focus would be. and since I wasn’t able to come up with a singular subject to center my blog around, I continued putting it off. and now here we are, back back back again at the start of another new year, and my goal to start a blog remains, but I’m no closer to achieving it because I’ve let some silly made-up reason stop me. I think it’s better to do something than nothing, and it’s time to stop getting in my own way. this photo represents two other longer-term goals I have in life, which is to one day own a VW bus (I’ve been coveting them since I was a kid) and to eventually move back to a coastline to be near my homegirl, the ocean. so here’s to having goals, and to taking first steps, even if they’re clumsy and you don’t know where you’re headed.