Jan 202014
 

As I started writing this I just departed LA on a flight bound for Mexico City.  How ironic that I am sitting next to an American guy of Lebanese origin who is visiting his ‘girlfriend’ in Mexico.  Among the many things he tells me, most interesting is that there are lots of Lebanese people in Mexico.

I thought I’d use the remaining few hours of this flight to catch up on some blog posts, namely the UAE.  I spent 10 action packed days over there primarily to see my sister however ended up getting seriously side-tracked.

For me, Abu Dhabi and Dubai were a contrast.  I found Dubai to own most of the ‘glitz and glamour’ with the pick of restaurants, bars and clubs and many international names.  It reminded me a lot of Las Vegas with all the lights, an impressive skyline and loads of decadence (minus the casinos and strippers).

WorldTour_Dubai_BuildingDubai_Nov2013

Abu Dhabi on the other hand was much more conservative, slower-paced and I guess more ‘family oriented’ with theme parks such as Ferrari World, the massive Sheikh Zayed Mosque and definitely a more suburban, local feel to the place.

Abu Dhabi Downtown

Abu Dhabi Downtown

I was also fortunate enough to visit at the best time of the year from a climate perspective – winter.  During the day, the temperature would range between a very dry and comfortable 25-30°C. This made walking around the town all day possible which I’m told is something you don’t want to try during other seasons.

My visit to the UAE also included a few firsts for me.  To begin with I thought I’d try my luck finding a CouchSurfing host in Abu Dhabi for my first night.  Having regularly used CS throughout my world tour to simply meet people, I often wondered about actually staying with a host.  Well that turned out to be an easy and positive experience in Abu Dhabi.  My one and only couch request was answered within about 5 minutes, and my host Syed even picked me up from the airport at midnight. Definitely a 5-star experience there.

The next day I met my sister who I had not seen for some time and we made the 1.5 hour drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to attend the post wedding celebrations of her close friend.  Once again I got treated to some warm hospitality where I stayed at her apartment in Palm Island Jumeirah. I also befriended many of the international wedding guests whom had travelled to Dubai from all over the world.

A few of the international wedding guests

A few of the international wedding guests

As a result of my new friendships I ended up staying a week in Dubai before I headed back to Abu Dhabi to hang out with my sis for a few days.  Inspired by what was very comprehensive “Best of” list compiled by my new wingman ‘MSG’ – I thought i’d put together my own slightly shorter version.

Best Shisha – The Palace Hotel (Dubai) I don’t normally smoke shisha (aka hookah) but for some reason got addicted to them in the UAE – and we were literally smoking them everywhere.  It is definitely the thing to do with many restaurants, cafes and bars offering comfortable outdoor lounges where you can kick-back and enjoy what we referred to as a ‘sheesh’. With a range of flavours, double apple was definitely the favourite.

Siddharta Lounge Dubai

Siddharta Lounge Dubai

The Palace near the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) was a very impressive place to smoke shisha with the most comfortable outdoor lounges and experienced bar staff – which I quickly learnt are very difficult to find across the UAE.

The Palace

The Palace

Best Thrill(s) – Driving a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (Dubai) / Worlds Faster Roller Coaster Ferrari World (Abu Dhabi) Another couple of firsts for me ended up being a tie for best thrill and they both centred around Ferrari.With a price tag of AUD$700,000 and performance to match I was totally blown away getting behind the wheel of this awesome machine.  The fastest we clocked was about 240km/h and unfortunately noticed a speed camera flash at that very time. We had the beauty for a whole day and had an absolute blast.

Ferrari F12 Berlinetta Dubai

Ferrari F12 Berlinetta Dubai

And if you haven’t seen it already, be sure take a look at the YouTube video below.

Another adrenalin rush was the fastest roller coaster in the world which happened to be at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.  This roller coaster reaches a top speed of 320km/h in a matter of seconds – a speed I had not experienced before. We had to go another round and I highly recommend visiting this theme park if you are in the UAE.

320 Km/h at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

320 Km/h at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

Best Wingman – Mike ‘MSG’ Gore Mike was a guest at the wedding I mentioned earlier and when I overheard him mention that he was shopping for suits in Dubai I had to tag along.  We absolutely killed it at Zegna Dubai Mall where Mike copped a super impressive suit to which we made a few minor alterations to make sure it fit like a glove. From that point we couldn’t be separated and had a blast in Dubai checking out several bars, clubs, restaurants and of course driving around in the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta.

Mike and I in the Naif Souk

Mike and I in the Naif Souk

Best Meal – Lebanese Flower (Abu Dhabi) For months my brother and sister had raved about the Lebanese food in Abu Dhabi.  Whilst it certainly wasn’t Michelin star dining, it definitely delivered the goods on authenticity, flavour and generous servings and a very reasonable price.

Lebanese Flower - Abu Dhabi

Lebanese Flower – Abu Dhabi

We definitely ordered far too much but the security guards at my sisters building were more than happy to finish it off what we didn’t eat.

Lebanese Food with my sis @ Abu Dhabi

Lebanese Food with my sis @ Abu Dhabi

Some other honourable mentions were Afghan Kebab House (Naif Souk Dubai), Hakkasan (Dubai) and Hotpots (Abu Dhabi).  There is no shortage of good food in the UAE ranging from street food all the way up to Michelin star dining.

Best Buy – Zegna Dubai Mall Even though I technically didn’t buy it, the suit MSG bought at Zegna (Dubai Mall) would definitely be the stand out purchase of the visit. We spent hours in the store making sure the suit fit like a glove and received the most amazing service from the manager there. Whilst it was no bargain, it was one of the best Zegna’ I’ve seen.

Mike in his new Zegna @ Dubai Mall

Mike in his new Zegna @ Dubai Mall

Best Cultural Experience – Desert Safari (Abu Dhabi)

This was another ‘must do’ attraction that my brother and sister said I had to do.  I must admit the timing of the safari was perfect being on my last day in the UAE.  After the intense 10 days in Dubai, it was great to chill out in the desert where we went dune bashing in the 4WD’s, rode camels and ate some traditional middle-eastern food.

Desert Safari - Abu Dhabi

Desert Safari – Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi Desert Safari

Abu Dhabi Desert Safari

Abu Dhabi Desert Safari

Abu Dhabi Desert Safari

Best Drink – Vodka Martini (Hakkasan Dubai)

The UAE is probably not the best place to consume alcohol.  In fact it is forbidden for most locals, places for foreigners to consume it are generally restricted to hotels and public drunkenness will have zero tolerance.  Also, most bar staff have limited knowledge of cocktails so don’t expect too much.

One exception though was Hakkasan Dubai where we had the most incredible vodka martini.  I’m not usually a martini drinker myself but after a few days with MSG I quickly developed a liking.

Best Martini @ Hakkasan Dubai

Best Martini @ Hakkasan Dubai

Best Local – Amir (Naïf Souk)

Finally, I couldn’t compile a best of UAE list which mentioning Amir whom we stumbled upon in the Naif Souk in Dubai.  There wasn’t a great deal of tourists in the Naif Souk and it was mostly inhabited by the local Indian community where I learnt the UAE has the largest population outside India.

The reason we visited the souk to begin with was to find a recommended Afghan Kebab House which I read about online. There would have been absolutely no chance we would have found it on our own and I would call it divine intervention that Amir approached us almost immediately after disembarking from the old water taxi that bought us to the souk. We almost dismissed Amir on first glance as he just looked like he wanted to sell us stuff (which he kinda did), but he literally became our personal concierge getting us phone recharge cards, finding the kebab house as well as finding specific clothing and footwear.  We took him to lunch and got to know him a little better and like him so much that we got his number and hung out again in the Naif Souk for a few days later.

Amir - Naif Souk

Amir – Naif Souk

Naif Souk

Naif Souk

Naif Souk

Naif Souk

Overall the 10 days I spent in the UAE were a massive change from the earlier 6 months in Europe and the USA. In particular, having a break from hostel life was welcome (btw don’t expect to find them anywhere in the UAE).  Best of all it was great to hang out with my sister for a few days and enjoy the simple things like eating traditional foods and laugh a lot.

The UAE was a great preparation for my upcoming visits to Jordan, Palestine and Israel.  Whether you are stopping through on your way to Europe or elsewhere, the UAE is definitely worth more than a few days and definitely don’t bypass Abu Dhabi if you have a stopover in Dubai.

Dec 292013
 

After spending a night in Aqaba, I jumped on a bus headed for the Jordan capital of Amman where I then squashed into a ‘servees taxi’ headed for the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge border crossing to Israel & Palestine. The advice of many locals and those online was to cross the border down south at Eilat and travel north to Jerusalem. The King Hussein Bridge crossing is not exactly an ‘official’ border crossing, is notorious for lengthy delays and is predominantly used by locals wishing to cross into Palestine.

I decided to ignore all advice and cross there regardless. Why? Not exactly sure… But some of the thoughts going through my head were 1. It was the closest crossing to Jerusalem, 2. I wanted to be ‘local’, 3. I didn’t need a Jordan Re-entry Visa if I came back through this crossing and 4. It seemed like some fun 🙂

Some friends and family back home were a little worried about my suggested itinerary of Jerusalem and West Bank.  I guess if you watch a lot of mainstream news and follow government travel advice below then you might prefer to stay in Jordan.

Australian Govt. Smart Traveller Travel Advice

Australian Govt. Smart Traveller Travel Advice

Upon arriving at the Jordan side of the border crossing things seemed to go unexpectedly smoothly.  After paying some exit fees, I was then led to a bus with a German businessman and an American lady working for an NGO in West Bank. The bus ride lasted about 10 minutes, over the Allenby Bridge and then into the Israeli territory where the mean looking military personnel with AK47’s and the new modern building made it obvious I was now in the jurisdiction of Israel.

This is where my circumstances now shifted. The border control people couldn’t get over my name and didn’t really accept the legitimacy of my Arab first name and Jewish surname. One officer said to me ‘what kind of name is that’ – I didn’t bother replying. I was then told to take a seat for what felt like hours but was probably only about 20-30 minutes. I knew I had some issues when most of the Arabs went through and I along with 1-2 other westerners were held back.  Fortunately the terminal offered free wifi and I was updating my Facebook status with the current situation.

I then noticed an attractive young lady in plain clothes walk out of an office carrying my passport and calling my name with some assertion.  She led me into an office where I was interviewed for about 20-30 minutes and asked about so many aspects of my life. I think the turning point of the interview was when she asked me to list what countries and corresponding dates I had visited so far on my trip to which I was able to answer with a high degree of accuracy and detail.  She seemed quite impressed with what I had experienced and we then started talking about suggested itineraries in Israel to which she strongly recommended I see Tel Aviv.

It was clear by this stage I was going to be granted entry but I did stop short of asking for her phone number.  I then collected my Immigration Card (no more stamps in passports) and off to Jerusalem I went.

No more stamps in Passports these days.

No more stamps in Passports these days.

As I only had a few days in Israel I wanted to maximise my precious time so I investigated some organised tours being offered by my hostel which had good reviews.  My plan was to spend a full day in Jerusalem Old Town which was simple enough, but the West Bank is where I needed some help.  I knew something was up when the hostel tour manager prefaced her pitch by saying their tours were ‘strictly non-political’. The tour was called the ‘Best of the West Bank’ and included things like visiting a Palestinian brewery, seeing the Arafat’ tomb and birthplace of Jesus christ in Bethlehem.

After having a poor experience with some tour operators in Wadi Rum, I thought Id do a little research online before committing to this tour.  For most of my world tour thus far I have steered clear of organised tours but in this region they do make the experience far better. It was then when I noticed the Green Olive Tours which were by far the standout online and rated so highly by those that have attended .

I was really fortunate that my tour went ahead as there was only one other person attending.  Our tour guide Yamen is a local Palestinian who has also spent time in Canada.  He was so passionate about telling his story and even though he has probably led this tour on countless occasions, it didn’t show as his enthusiasm and passion came through so strongly.

Just the 3 of us including our guide Yamen (centre).

Just the 3 of us including our guide Yamen (centre).

I focussed on keeping an open-mind during this tour.  I wanted to take in as much as I could and make up my mind at then end about my views on what I had experienced.  As the saying goes there are always two-sides to every story.

The tour began by crossing a checkpoint into Palestinian territory of Bethlehem.  I was given the rundown of requirements for getting in and out of Palestinian territory. Entry was fast and pain-free but later I would find that without the immigration card pictured above or explicit permission granted from the Israeli government, re-entry into Jerusalem is not possible.

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_10-2

It was only upon crossing through the checkpoint that I even noticed the dividing wall.  It’s size and scale was really overwhelming as it travelled beyond the eye can see and to this day I still think about how people can live like this.  I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like.

I guess one positive aspect from such an awful structure is the outlet it provides for both local and international artists to express their work.  I was blown away with the sheer volume of meaningful art and the presence of internationally recognised works such as those of Banksy whom I had also seen in other countries I had visited.

This is a Banksy classic.

This is a Banksy classic.

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_18-2

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_20-2

Our first stop was a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem that has existed since 1948.  This is where I must admit my ignorance well and truly shined bright. I was expecting to see a ‘tent city’ as often pictured on TV and was surprised so see real dwellings that were constructed by the UN. I guess for the camp to be over 60 years old, tents wouldn’t fare too well.

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_22-2

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_29-2

This refugee camp was built to shelter the Palestinian families that were displaced after the 6 day war in 1948.  I couldn’t help but notice so many young children roaming around the camp for which there is not a lot too keep amused. I was told that there were no parks or activities, so the kids just roam around and often end up demonstrating with Israeli military personnel at the many checkpoints.

Water is a precious resource in the West Bank.

Water is a precious resource in the West Bank.

I also noticed that nearly every dwelling had lots of water tanks on the roof.  I was then informed that despite the West Bank having ample water reserves, the water authority is controlled by the Israeli Government and frequent outages occur (weekly) and therefore locals fill tanks to live.  Outages far outweigh the periods when water services are active, therefore the tanks are filled from mains water (not rainfall).

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_33-2

The Palestinian kids were really friendly as it was not very often that they would see foreigners like us in their neighbourhood. After chatting with us for only few minutes I really started to notice their strong dislike of the Israeli troops.  Yamen told me that these days most adolescents/adults don’t really get involved in confrontations with the Israeli military.  The children however often throw rocks and burn tires during almost daily demonstrations.

Tear gas cannisters litter the streets almost like cigarette butts.

Tear gas canisters litter the streets almost like cigarette butts.

Israeli Govt Tear Gas launching station built onto the dividing wall.

Israeli Govt Tear Gas launching station built onto the dividing wall.

There were some unbelievably sad and shocking stories told to me during this visit.  I was shown 2 (side by side) metal garage doors with murals painted on them and asked to find something both murals had in common.  After looking for 5 minutes I didn’t really noticed anything substantial and was then shown the numerous bullet holes about 1.5 metres high across both doors. I was told that Palestinian children were lined across these doors by Israeli soldiers and as punishment for throwing rocks and demonstrating, the troops fired their automatic weapons just above the children’s heads over the doors.

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_56-2

WorldTour_West-Bank_20131204_57-2

There was also a burnt out military observation tower on the dividing wall nearby which attracted my attention.  This is a notorious site for locals as I was told it was where an Israeli soldier shot a young Palestinian child and since then it is the target of local children.

A notorious site when a child had been killed.

A notorious site when a child had been killed.

After the refugee camp it was time to lighten the mood somewhat and off to the Church of Nativity we went to visit the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ by the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was surprised to be able to touch the fourteen-point silver star beneath the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity as well as the Chapel of the Manger where Christ was laid.

The spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ by the Blessed Virgin Mary

The spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ by the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Chapel of the Manger where Christ was laid.

The Chapel of the Manger where Christ was laid.

On the way to Ramallah we were shown many Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  These settlements are quite controversial and considered illegal by the international community.  The scale of the actual settlements was shocking with many of them the size of large suburbs.  In the news during my visit was the demolition of local Bedouin villages – minority tribal groups.

Not only do the settlements result in the loss of people’s homes but they also cause massive disruption to locals. Dividing walls are built around them, water is diverted away, roads are closed off for locals and new military checkpoints are formed.

A recently demolished Bedouin village making way for a new Israeli settlement.

A recently demolished Bedouin village making way for a new Israeli settlement.

 Raw sewerage pumped out of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands.  The smell was overwhelming.

Raw sewerage pumped out of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. The smell was overwhelming.

We also had a quick stop at Yasser Arafat’s tomb before arriving in Ramallah. Numerous theories have appeared regarding Arafat’s death, with the most prominent being poisoning

Arafat was "temporarily" buried within the Mukataa in Ramallah and would be reburied in East Jerusalem following the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Arafat was “temporarily” buried within the Mukataa in Ramallah and would be reburied in East Jerusalem following the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Upon arriving in Ramallah I was pleasantly surprised to find such a vibrant city.  I guess the Palestinians have adapted to the many issues surrounding them and it has certainly not affected the way they go about living their lives.  There were very few tourists (if any) around Ramallah yet not for a second did I feel uncomfortable.  The locals were so eager to talk with us and were super friendly.

We were treated to some local street food made superbly by my young friend – steamed corn sautéed in butter and spices.

Same, Same but Different ;)

Same, Same but Different 😉

If ever in Palestine, be sure to pay my friend a visit for the best street food - you wont miss him.

If ever in Palestine, be sure to pay my friend a visit for the best street food – you wont miss him.

I also learnt that Ramallah had a thriving nightlife scene, notably the best not only in the West Bank but also Jerusalem with many making the border crossing at Jerusalem to party there. I was really disappointed I didn’t stay at least one night in Ramallah as I’m sure I would have had a blast there. Our last stop in Ramallah was to a local sweet shop to sample one of my favourite middle-eastern sweets Kanafeh.  It is a Levantine cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup – a must try.

Kanafeh in Ramallah.

Kanafeh in Ramallah.

At the end of the tour we were dropped off at the Qalandia checkpoint to re-enter Jerusalem.  The purpose of this was for us to experience what life is like for those Palestinians that are actually able to enter Jerusalem.  Upon entering the checkpoint, and walking through a cage with passport and baggage control. The queue tends to be messy and the procedure unpleasant, especially if you carry baggage (which I happened to be). We were told the entire commute can easily take 2-3 hours — however we were lucky with it taking around 90 minutes.

Demonstration just outside the  Qalandia checkpoint

Demonstration just outside the Qalandia checkpoint

My tour of the West Bank has really left a lasting impression with me.  It was such a worthwhile experience and in retrospect I feel that I learned such a great deal from it.  The Palestinians are some of the most beautiful, friendly and good-spirited people I have met on my world tour and I really would like to return some day to spend more time, especially in Ramallah.

I really hope some day soon the complex issues surrounding this area will be resolved and everyone can freely live together in peace.  There is far too much potential here not being utilised and most of the world misses out on the beauty I experienced

Below is a quote I noticed in Bethlehem, I guess it clearly shows what needs to happen.

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