Monday, June 17, 2024

A Week in Denver, Colorado with Family

I'm finally catching up on posts from our multi-week trip back home to the United States for my friend N's wedding and to spend time with family. We spent a week in Colorado staying with my sister C and her husband A, and we had a blast. Colorado is such a beautiful state, and I love getting to know it better through my family visits since my sister and mom moved there.

Coincidentally, the first full day we had in Colorado happened to be the same day my friend Rachel Rueckert was doing a book event in Denver for her debut novel, If the Tide Turns! We went with C and A to an awesome local bookshop called Tattered Cover for the event, where we learned all sorts of pirate facts and got fun swag.

I highly recommend If the Tide Turns to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It is well researched and beautifully written - I couldn't put it down! (I also recommend the vegan sushi restaurant a short walk from the Tattered Cover: Wellness Sushi! As a non-vegan sushi lover, I was skeptical but all of us loved it.)

S spent a lot of quality time with grandma, too, including a day we spent at the Denver Botanic Gardens with the whole family and my friend from college K who lives near my sister. My favorite part was the bonsai garden, with a range of bonsai trees that taught me that the art of bonsai is much more localized than I thought.

There were many bonsai using plants native to Colorado at different stages in their cultivation. All of them were beautiful in their own way. For the Nintendo gamers out there: doesn't the one in the photo above look just like it might be hiding a Korok?

We also encountered a few of these walls filled with twigs, fuzz, fur, and other things that local birds can come and take to use to build up their nests. It's such a cool concept and the first time I've seen anything like it.

The other stop that was an absolute hit was the Denver Zoo. S was in a state of pure delight for the many hours we were there and probably could've kept going if I wasn't so exhausted from so much walking. The zoo also included some aquarium exhibits, which were nice to enjoy without paying separately for an aquarium admission.

I can't believe how I got no pictures of any of the food we ate, but C and A are excellent hosts and wonderful cooks so we ate extremely well the whole time we were there. It was such a healing trip in so many ways, from the special family time to the refreshing and cool Colorado air (which also gives me the best hair and skin of my life while I'm there). It was hard to say goodbye at the end of our weeklong trip, but we're looking forward to the next time we can go back!

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Bachelorette Weekend in Savannah, Georgia

My Foreign Service bestie is getting married, so we flew to the States for the wedding and to visit our family. The timing worked out so I was able to attend my dear friend's bachelorette weekend in Savannah, Georgia. I've been to Savannah before as part of an American South road trip I took with M many years ago, but this time was completely different given the crowd and the occasion. I'm normally such a hardcore trip planner that it was such an unusual and nice experience for me to show up to a trip where someone else made the itinerary.

Longtime readers of the blog will know the importance the other N and M play in our lives from my many posts on our previous trips with them in Korea. This was N's bachelorette, and it was a blast. I hadn't met most of the other bridesmaids before, but I learned a lot about them and we all had so much fun celebrating N. We all arrived Friday night to our Airbnb in Savannah and hung out over drinks and pizza. I was the first to get there and with another bridesmaid helped the maid of honor decorate the Airbnb. This was my first time doing a full-on bachelorette trip like this, and it was so special, especially thanks to the two maids of honor: the one who attended and the one who couldn't attend but did a lot of the planning and logistics from afar.

(The theme for the weekend was Veuve before the Vows because N loves champagne. I learned in the process of writing this blog post that "veuve" means widow in French and became associated with champagne when widowed Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin changed the name of her late husband's business she decided to take over from Clicquot-Muiron et Fils to Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, which "suggested a certain kind of respectability to the beverage… some of these beverages had gotten associated with the debauchery and wild parties of the royal courts of old" according to historian Kolleen M. Guy. You can read more about that fascinating history on the BBC website.)

On Saturday morning, we kicked off the day with a phenomenal brunch at Collins Quarter at Forsyth Park. Everything was delicious, and I was thrilled to find one of my favorite herbal teas on the menu: butterfly pea tea. To my shock, they were planning on serving the tea without lemon, when the signature perk of this deep blue tea is that acid turns it purple. The effect is so fun to watch, and they were happy to oblige my request for a few lemon slices.

After brunch, we took a delightful stroll through the farmers market at Forsyth Park. I bought a paleo cookie that was one of the best I ever had, and a kind man selling honey gifted a bottle to N for free when he found out she was getting married. Another friend, A, bought a bag of delicious, local Georgia peaches that she and I enjoyed eating throughout the weekend. Farmers markets are something I really miss living in Dubai. The closest we have in the UAE is something called Ripe Market, which has food but mostly food trucks and not a lot of fresh produce.

Then we did a pedal pub, which most of us had never experienced before, with another group who was also on a bachelorette trip. A pedal pub is not a pub itself but a vehicle powered by the pedaling of the customers and steered by an experienced conductor that you use to travel from pub to pub, where they offer special deals for pedal pub clients.

It was so much fun and we were able to get a light workout in while exploring a bunch of different places. The standout stop was Mint to Be Mojito, which has not only great mojitos but the best empanadas we've ever had. It even had a speakeasy in the back called La Aparicion that we got to experience since we were on the walking tour.

After that, we embarked on a cocktails and bar bites happy hour tour where we learned a bit about Savannah's Prohibition history and enjoyed drinks and food. I was grateful every stop had a mocktail option; I've become so used to mocktails in Dubai that I was surprised that multiple restaurants we visited had no non-alcoholic options listed. (The tour advertised itself as offering "heavy food tastings" but we felt like the portions were on the smaller end, so I would not recommend skipping a meal thinking the tour will be enough. It will not be enough for most.) We went back to the Airbnb to shower, eat some leftover pizza, and get ready for a night out.

Our evening started with Savannah Smiles dueling piano bar. Most of us (myself included) had never experienced a dueling piano bar before, but I had heard about them and was excited to go. Once we got in, I was blown away by the talent of the musicians. They were incredible pianists and singers (which I suppose on further reflection you have to be to succeed in such a heavily tip-based business where you are constantly improvising based on what the crowd demands). We could write things on napkins and take them to the stage with some cash to make song requests or insert a phrase. Of course, we had to get N and us up there for a dance as the bachelorette party. The maid of honor had brought several large prints of N's fiance M to the bachelorette and we took one of the faces on our night out, so even he made it up to the stage. (In case you're curious, we danced to Dancing Queen, which is a much longer song than we realized when we requested it. But now we have a fun memory!)

We then walked from the piano bar to the Electric Moon Skytop Lounge, a bar with a stunning view over the water. The highlight of the whole night was the Electric Moon dance floor, where people from seemingly all walks of life and all flavors of bachelorette were brought together by the most incredible DJ any of us had ever seen. We were tired from a full day of activities, but that DJ made us not want to leave. Every song and every transition was perfect. N loved it so much that she went up and got the DJ's Instagram handle so she could let her wedding DJ know that was the kind of vibe she was going for at her reception. We ended the night on such a high note.

On Sunday, we had bagels for breakfast at the Airbnb and then went to Tybee Beach for the day. Traffic was out of control but we made it there eventually. We had umbrellas and chairs reserved on the beach, and the maid of honor brought an inflatable engagement ring. We took photos, swam in the freshingly cool ocean water, sunbathed, read books, consumed an assortment of snacks and drinks we'd brought, and chatted. It was so relaxing. Even though Dubai has plenty of great beaches, we don't go often since M isn't a fan and it's a bit of a drive from our part of town. I hadn't realized how long it's been since I've enjoyed the beach until I was there. I love swimming and sunbathing and reading my book on the beach, and I managed to wear enough sunscreen that I didn't burn.

It was a bit of a nightmare trying to get food at the beach - everything was overcrowded and the wait times were very long. We decided to head back to the Airbnb, where we snacked, showered, and got dressed up in pink for our dinner at The Olde Pink House, a historic Southern restaurant. The food was so good, the portions were generous, and the ambiance was fantastic. It was the perfect choice for our final meal of the bachelorette. We decided to spend the rest of the night hanging out comfortably at the Airbnb, so we went back and changed into our pajamas and chatted and played games for hours. It is such a precious memory and I loved the chance to get to know these amazing women united in our love for N.

I already miss Savannah and there's even more I wanted to experience but didn't get a chance this time. (I'm looking at you, murder mystery book-themed tea house.) I feel so thankful I had the opportunity to come home from Dubai early enough to attend the bachelorette and meet the other bridesmaids and spend more time with N. At the same time, I missed M and S and was so excited to see them again. It's always good to come home.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Hiking in the UAE: Hatta Wadi Hub, Wadi Shawka, Wadi Al Helo, and Wadi Abadilah

During summer, the weather outside in the UAE is unbearably hot and so our time to explore the great outdoors this season was running out. While I was on leave from work for a few weeks, I wanted to make sure we got a taste of what was out there before it's too late. We ended up doing four hikes total in four different places: Hatta Wadi Hub, Wadi Shawka, Wadi Al Helo, and Wadi Abadilah.

One thing we quickly learned is that people who hike in the UAE must be quite fit in general, because every review of every hike we did in the past few weeks was rated "easy" on Wikiloc (the crowd-sourced outdoor hiking trail website and app, essential in the UAE in my opinion because so few trails are properly marked and otherwise you could get lost or find yourself on dangerous ground). Even though the hikes were rated easy, it always took us longer than the people leaving the reviews needed and we took plenty of breaks along the way. Our hikes ranged between 1 and 3.5 hours, and sometimes we struggled to find the trail on Wikiloc and ended up striking our own path back. Of course, we were limited because we brought S along with us in the hiking backpack and that prevented us from doing too much scrambling on the rocks or going too fast.

Hatta Wadi Hub had the most activities of the four, and they even had food trucks and amenities the other sites did not have. This is a popular destination for recreation and socializing, and it was easy to see why. The hike was okay and definitely the easiest of the four we did, but the trails definitely prioritized mountain biking. I would love to return with friends and try paddle boating and some of the other activities next time. The ice cream stand (called Glacee) was also phenomenal. I'm sure it helped that I was tired from the hot hike, but it tasted like some of the best ice cream I've had in my life.

Wadi Shawka was gorgeous, with sloping white steps up the side of the mountain leading to stunning views of the water below at Shawka Dam. I really appreciated the stops where we could catch our breath. Once we got to the top, we went down from the peak and took a turn so we could have a different view through the valley hiking back. Unfortunately, I did stumble on some loose rocks and of all the places I could have fallen I landed on an acacia thorn bush. It tore right through my hand and I spent the rest of that day plucking thorns out of my palm. (Just Google "acacia thorn" to see what stabbed me!) If you're going hiking in the UAE wilderness, I highly recommend at least a basic first aid kit - especially if you're clumsy like me! I thankfully got all the thorns out, and my hand healed nicely. What a relief!

Undeterred, we embarked on our third hike a few days later: Wadi Al Helo. You may have noticed that all of these hikes happen to be at places with "Wadi" in the name, and that's because "Wadi" means valley (traditionally a river valley but with the climate what it is it's often dry unless you go right after it rains), the best place to hike in a hot climate like the UAE. "Wadi Al Helo" is "Sweet Valley," and it was a sweet hike. This one had more archaeological significance than others, with a few (recreated?) ruins scattered around and a restored Islamic watchtower on the first peak of the hike. I imagine that part of the site is much more meaningful if you go with a local guide, as there wasn't much signage explaining the history or significance of what we saw. It was still a nice view, though. We tried to follow the Wikiloc entry I found on Wadi Al Helo exactly, but I think the farmer at the bottom of the mountain got tired of people hiking through their land. Since the Wikiloc was written, they'd erected a barbed wire fence and if that wasn't enough they reinforced it with sharp, high thorn bushes! Thankfully, M and I were able to walk parallel to the thorny fence until we made it back to the road and eventually back to the car.

We ended our hiking adventures with a trip to Wadi Abadilah. It's a good thing we ended on this one, too, because M said I won't be able to convince him to do another for a while after that experience! Wadi Abadilah was the greenest hike we did, with a start through some farmland and even running water. (We even saw some folks going for a swim in the water, but M told me not to go since we couldn't be sure the water was safe for swimming. I decided to spare him the stress.) The path that was described on Wikiloc was unavailable after a certain turn, so we tried to figure things out on our own. This resulted in not one but two extensive, rather steep ascents that ended up going nowhere - we ultimately had to turn back and retrace our steps to the beginning of the hike. M was not a fan of the high exertion and low payoff combo of those attempts to find the correct path, and we spent a couple days at home relaxing with no outside commitments as our reward.

If you're living in or visiting the UAE, that doesn't mean you have to give up the great outdoors. There is incredible nature in this country that is well worth exploring any time you can escape the sweltering summer heat. I love the opportunity hiking gives us to bond as a family, get some fresh air outside of the city, and experience other parts of the UAE besides Dubai. It's quite different than it is back home, but it wouldn't be any fun if everything everywhere was the same, anyway.