Viva Espana

I am back for a post following a few days away. The reason for the delay is that I didn’t take my computer with me the last few days. It’s too difficult to carry all of my stuff with me on my trips away from Barcelona. For that reason, I left my large backpack and suit bag in a locker at the Barcelona train station and headed out to Madrid for a few days.

 

To catch everyone up, I had an unbelievable time with Natalie and John, Mark, and Emily. Over the course of our time in Barcelona, Natalie and I drank wine on the beach, grabbed dinner in the Plaza Real, enjoyed venturing around town, notably to the Plaza de Espanya area (and her favorite, the Olympic park, ha), and more generally, had great times with friends.

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When the time came for Natalie and John to leave, it was really a tough day. Go from being around your girlfriend and friends, and next thing you know you are on your own in Europe for 8 days. Since they day they left, I have embraced this, but that didn’t make it an easy start. After they left, I headed over to the Picasso Museum and enjoyed art from throughout his career, with a heavy emphasis on the beginning. I then traveled around town, stopping at various locations for Wifi as I waited to take the overnight train to Madrid.

 

After killing 6 hours of time, and avoiding some major rain drops, it was finally time to leave. As I sat on the train, feeling alone in Europe, I met a girl from France sitting next to me on that train, and we had a great time talking about our experiences, professionally and personally. If there was ever a night where I could use a random friend, this was it, and it was truly great. Despite this, the sleep (obviously) wasn’t good, but I woke up the next morning in Madrid and ready to roll.

 

I arrived into the center of town at 8am and it was absolutely dead. I needed to burn time before checking in to my AirBNB accommodations, so I did what everyone else would do, went to McDonald’s. The Spanish McDonald’s, at least the one’s in Madrid, were the nicest I’ve ever seen. I wish I had a picture to describe it, but I was busy conserving my phone’s battery as it was nearly the dead. The only detraction was that bums would walk in and beg for money… inside the McDonald’s…. multiple times.

 

While I was still waiting, I took a short walk to Plaza Meyor, where I once again found two people that looked like they spoke English, so I struck up a conversation by saying “Hablas ingles?” Well, they were from Georgia, so again, that worked out well to gain some comfort that morning in town.

Puerta del Sol

Puerta del Sol

After checking in just before my phone died, I set out to explore the city. I walked over to the Royal Palace and Cathedral as well as explored the attached park. The park was incredible, heavily wooded and nice peaceful paths. Since I was by myself, again, it was a good time to slowly walk around, explore and enjoy the shade. By the time I got out of the park, I was starving, so I found a place called the Museo de Jamon and bought a salami sandwich and coke for 2 euro? – insanity!

 

After a brief siesta, I set out to explore the Prado museum of art. This museum holds the royal family’s art collection including Goya, Velasquez, Rembrandt, etc. One painting in particular, Velasquez’s Las Meninas painting had special meaning since I saw Picasso’s version the day before and had little meaning at the time. After comparing the two works, I felt a much deeper appreciation for both. Overall though, I took my time going through it for 2 hours and decided I needed to head back the next day again. For dinner, my host, as well as the Let’s Go Europe book I have been using, recommended a placed called Lateral for dinner. I sat at the bar and once again made friends with a woman who sat next to me from Vancouver, Canada that is now living in Spain. As always, it was great conversation about her experience in Spain and her career plans, etc. It was a great night.

 

The next day, I spent running around trying to print my boarding pass for my Ryan Air flight to Rome – they charge 15-20 euro if you have them print it, so I needed to do this on my own. After that, I headed over to the Reina Sofia art museum, a more modern museum containing many Picasso’s and Dali. After seeing Guernica, another famous Picasso work, I was ready to head to the Buen Retiro Park, which was another huge park with a couple palaces. I ended up hanging out there for a while, once again enjoying the shade and weather.

Cristal Palace

Cristal Palace

I then headed back to the Prado to finish going through the museum. On the way back to my place, I noticed a ton of police in riot gear, which was a bit strange. But this was the first indicator that even compared to Barcelona, Madrid is the most insane party location I have ever seen – I’ll return to that in a moment. For dinner, I headed out for tapas and met a nice girl from Ireland and enjoyed talking to her about her work with the Irish tourism board. I hope to keep in touch.

 

I decided to call it an early night given my early train ride the next day. However, as I went to bed (at 1am) it was pretty loud, however, it was nothing compared to the noise to come. After waking up many times throughout the night to what sounded like the most raging party I have ever heard (not music, but seemingly hundreds or thousands of people yelling and singing), my alarm went off at 6am, and the party was still going strong.

 

At this point, I was getting scared, it sounded like a warzone outside. Was I really going to walk through the warzone? Well, by the time I showered and got outside at 6:30 it had called down substantially, however, there were still people out drinking in the streets. Quite honestly, its hard to imagine people of another culture partying as hard as it sounded in Madrid. Barcelona was loud, but Madrid was an absolute warzone.

 

After that, I hopped on the train back to Barcelona, which took 9 hours given that it stopped 50+ times and seemed to go no faster than 50 mph. Upon arriving back in Barcelona, I got a text from Mohamed, my Egyptian friend, and went back to the Box with him for dinner. Great to see a friend again.

 

Once again, I’m calling it an early night as my flight leaves for Rome at 6am tomorrow. I won’t have my laptop again, but I’ll report back shortly.

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Vino y Amigos – Day 24 & 25

Today was a big day as my girlfriend, Natalie, and friend, John, both fellow MBA’s at Ohio State were arriving in town. The morning started by checking out of the hostel and dragging my bags around the corner to the flat we reserved through AirBNB. For those that don’t know the service, it essentially allows you to rent someone’s flat, either a private room in the flat or in our case in Barcelona, the whole flat. When I checked in, I quickly saw the place was fantastic despite being a bit small. It is literally 20 feet off La Rambla, and for those that know Barcelona, you know this is where a lot of the action goes down. It also was clear the owner had recently renovated the place as it was all new appliances and cabinets.

 

Again, after the previous night, I have decided to avoid hostels if at all possible. The hostel was great socially and for a cheap place (but I’d much rather pay a bit more) but not for much else. Well, anyway, I grabbed some wine and when they arrived, we had a drink before heading out to explore.

 

The Ramblas area is full of narrow streets and sidewalks lined with shops, so you never know what great place is around the corner. I decided to rock my new custom shirt and we decided to walk around until we found a place that we thought was interesting … and we definitely found a good one. “The Box” is a tiny bar/restaurant in the Ramblas area that serves crazy good and cheap mojitos (3.50 euro) and has a very limited menu of amazing food. The mojitos had literally two handfuls of mint leaves, and weren’t overly sweet, which was great.

 

In terms of food, we had the quesadillas and hotdogs – seems pretty boring right? But it wasn’t. The food was based on the owners heritage, one being French and the other Colombian. The hot dogs were Colombian style (you don’t know what that means??) and had pineapple sauce, French cheese, and were on French baguettes. They also said it was their marquee dish. The quesadilla also had the same French cheese and was incredible.

 

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John with the Colombian hot dog

The owners were great to talk to and we helped them do more business by getting another one of classmates, Mark Steidler and his girlfriend, my Egyptian friend from the previous night, and randoms off the street to come in as well. We spent the entire night there.

 

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Emily, Mark, John, Natalie, me and Mohamed, our new Egyptian friend

The next day, we headed over towards the beach and were looking for a certain bar/restaurant that John’s GAP client (who was also in Barcelona this weekend) recommended. We walked along the Mediterranean to find it and the water was significantly colder than I was used to – not like the bath water of the Persian Gulf. When we found the place, it was just off the beach, and we enjoyed a couple bottles of wine between us as we enjoyed the atmosphere around us. It was perfect.

 

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Under the cabana at the beach bar

 

Next on the agenda was meeting up with John’s GAP client at a very fancy hotel in town here, the Mandarin Hotel. We had drinks on the roof and enjoyed the sunset as we chatted about the GAP program, life, and Barcelona. The view was incredible!

 

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Rooftop bar

As we left there, we went off in search of a champagne bar that he recommended, which unfortunately we never found. As a result, we ended up back at “The Box” for another round of mojitos and food with our new friends (the owners). Another great couple days in the books.

Puddle Jumping and Friend of the World – Day 23

Day 23 was the longest day of my journey so far. Because my flight left Dubai at 4:45am, it meant essentially pulling an all nighter (I napped from 11pm-12:30am and then snagged a cab to the airport at 1:30am). DXB airport, and the EgyptAir check-in line in particular, were surprisingly busy when I arrived at 2am. As I had expected, when I looked around, I was seemingly the only westerner in line. When I got near the gate area, I wasn’t sure if the flight would serve food since it was not a terribly long flight, so I ran over to the food court. Unfortunately, the best option was McDonald’s (at 4am) and they weren’t serving breakfast yet.

 

Once I got on the plane, I had a pretty good experience with EgyptAir and they gave all instructions in English after doing so in Arabic. The reviews on the airline were that their planes were old and their service wasn’t very good – not a ringing endorsement. However, when I got on the plane, my seat had a USB charger and they had a couple of American movies. I chose to watch Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. My seat on the United flight I took to Dubai didn’t even have a USB charger port or electric plug – so this was an upgrade. The food on the other hand was very strange. They ended up serving breakfast, which I was moderately excited about until I opened it. The first thing I noticed was a hot dog (?) sitting next to the eggs and potatoes. They also had rice pudding, which wasn’t bad. The hot dog freaked me out though and I didn’t eat the eggs because of it.

 

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The “breakfast hot dog”. Sorry, no thank you.

As we began to approach Cairo international, I was really hoping to see the pyramids. To my disappointment, we didn’t go far enough west as we circled to line up to the airport, and the visibility was relatively low even though there were no clouds.

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Once the plane landed, I took my first steps onto the African continent and that’s when things became strange. The terminal smelled like cigarette smoke despite no smoking signs. Eventually I found people just smoking in the terminal and it seemed like no one cared. Another interesting situation was that there are really no seats to wait in until they open up the gate area an hour or so before the flight. For someone that is connecting, like me, this poses a problem because I was there for 3 hours. Eventually I found a seat, this wasn’t easy, and sat next to a girl from Sudan. This was the first of many great people I met today. She was headed to America to meet up with her husband. She didn’t speak much English, but we spoke about life in Sudan, fashion (she was interested to hear if women had to wear certain attire in the US), dancing (she’s a break dancer) and music (Celine Dion & Britney Spears… interesting). Anyway, it helped pass the time and was a lot of fun.

 

After she left, my gate opened and I (as well as everyone else) had to go through a metal detector. However, the detector went off for half the people, and they didn”t even make you walk back through. I set it off, and nobody even talked to me about it, so I after waiting a second to hear what they wanted me to do, I picked up my bag and walked on. Not comforting.

 

On my second plane, from Cairo to Barcelona, I once again did not see the pyramids. I believe if I had been on the other side of the plane, I might have had a chance, but I will never know. I do know that we flew right over Cairo and Alexandria on the way.

 

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The coast of Alexandria, Egypt from high above.

Once I landed in Barcelona, I was on my own and had to figure things out. I took every opportunity possible to start conversations with randoms. Given that the college academic year recently ended, there are many Americans, and students from around the world for that matter, backpacking through Europe. Everyone seemingly is looking to meet people, and I was no exception. I also stayed at a hostel, more on that later, which helped facilitate meeting people. One of my 7 roommates, a 26 year old Egyptian, was actually on my flight from Cairo, and we ended up hanging out the rest of the day. Real cool guy. I also had extended time with people from the Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, Missouri, and California. Just from walking the city for a few hours, I can already see why people love this place. Its on the Mediterranean and it has mountains – what more do you need? The area I am staying in, Las Ramblas, also has the narrow streets that I always love navigating.

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One of the narrow streets in Las Ramblas.

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A couple things I learned/re-learned about myself through these conversations and the experience in Barcelona so far. Barcelona is a late night, seemingly hard core clubbing kind of scene where people stay out until 4am. In a previous life, I might have been able to do this, and I still may kick it into gear for a night here, but this is not me anymore. Just hearing the people I met talk about what they were going to do later in the night was enough for me. My Egyptian friend and I went to a bar, but ended up back at the hostel to drink wine with others in the lobby, so it was not a terribly late night. After pulling an all nighter the previous night, this was absolutely fine with me.

 

The second thing I learned is that I am WAY beyond staying in hostels at this point. I should also note that one of the guys I met, one of his roommates was a 65 year old Finnish gentlemen, so its not all people in their early 20s, but most of them are. Anyway, for one night, it worked out and was a block away from the flat I am staying the next few days, but I am going to try and avoid hostels moving forward. While they are great at helping you meet people, and this one even gave us a free dinner at a bar down the street which was actually pretty decent. But on the downside, people wake you up in the middle of the night (4am or later) when they come back from the bars, they also wake you up when they leave at 6am in the morning, and they aren’t always 100% clean. Last night was probably 50% clean, so I need some time to feel clean again.

 

With that said, Natalie and a buddy, John, are getting to Barcelona from Germany and London today and it should be a great time. 

Goodnight Dubai – Day 21 & Day 22

Another day down here in the desert and we continued to work through the presentation. At one point, we had 113 slides between two presentations (we have two very different deliverables and thus decided to separate decks was the way to go). This may seem like a boatload of slides, and it is, but our project required us to provide the low level details of how to open a business. As a result, we had to include our go to market strategy and follow it through with the details of where to locate, who would work for it, how they would market themselves, etc. In the end, we were able to cut down a bit, but it was still a ton of slides.

 

During lunch, Travis and I decided to head out to pick something up. The second we walked outside, we were blasted with some of, if not, the most extreme heat we have seen on this trip. I had no idea what the temperature was when were out there, but I was sweating bullets. When we got back from our 20 minute walk to get food, and 20 minutes back, air conditioning never felt so good. Turns out it was 106 degrees, actual temperature, and felt like 115 degrees. I have never felt heat like that, and I wouldn’t mind never feeling that again.

 

After work, given the heat, Joey and I decided to make the most of it and walked over to the JBR beach for one last go round. Once again, one of the locals rode his camels up and down the beach trying to make a few dirham, and we just sat there and enjoyed the water and sun. It was a bit cooler with the sea breeze.

 

I then spent some time back at the condo packing up and trying to figure out how I can get my suit bag home without carrying it in Europe. The frustrating part is that I packed 2 suits, and many dress shirts and polos to support the business casual look we needed for the office. However, we only went to the office 3 times the entire trip. That is 3 of the 15 work days we had here. So…. most of the stuff I brought in my suit bag was a waste of space and dead weight to carry with me over the next couple weeks.

 

Anyway, I checked DHL, UPS, and FedEx, none of which would ship my bag (20 pounds) from here for less than $600(?!?). That is absolute insanity. I then tried United Cargo and they don’t accept cargo from individuals, you have to be a business. Finally, I found out that Barcelona’s airport has lockers you can rent, so it looks like that is the play. I still plan to investigate how much it would be to ship once I get to Barcelona.

 

To close out the last night I would be going out here in Dubai, Joey took me to a place called Barasty, which is a very large bar with multiple levels, live music in some places, DJ music in others. It was a fun way to close things out from a social perspective.

 

As Thursday came around, it was presentation day. All day was spent making changes to the presentations and trying to get it down the home stretch. We ended up hacking out 20 slides or so, but we still had a ton, and there was virtually no time to rehearse the presentation.

 

We headed up towards the Burj Khalifa one last time, and went up to the office to present. It seemed like our ideas went over pretty well, although it was a bit tough to gauge. The format of the presentation was that we had already presented the basis of the idea to the same group last week, so this was our chance to refine it and re-present it, and also to present the strategy deliverable for the first time. As the presentation ended, it started to set in, it was the last project I will have in the MBA program – and what an experience these two years have been.

 

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Immediately after the presentation, right outside the office. That is the Burj Khalifa behind us. Taken by a timer from the sidewalk.

In particular, the GAP program was a great capstone, personally and professionally. While I wish we could have gone to the office more, that part really didn’t matter that much. Our project challenged and empowered us to think like we were the CEO of a startup, a truly unique experience.

 

After the presentation, we headed back to the souq area to pick up our shirts. Thankfully all five of the shirts that we ordered were ready, and once again everyone was very excited about them. As I mentioned in my last piece, my shirt was a bit of a fashion statement (I found the fabric for the cuffs and collar and told the tailor I wanted to add them), but when in Dubai…. every time I wear this shirt in particular, but really for all three of the shirts I had made, they will have a great story.

 

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All of us with our new shirts

Tonight is my last night here, and I really won’t be sleeping since my flight leaves at 4:45am for Cairo. I’m on Egyptair Flight 911. It’ll be really exciting to stop in Cairo and I’m hoping to see the pyramids from above. Fingers crossed its clear, and they are on my side of the plane. As I leave Dubai, there may be fewer posts, as I may not have ready internet access, as I had here. Stay tuned though, I’m looking forward to continuing the stories.

 

Farewell Dubai, it’s been fun!

Stylin’ – Day 20

Yet again, we spent the day working as hard as we could to bring the presentation closer to the finish line. It was also another day of spending lunch at the pool. I am definitely getting used to that. A surprising part of the trip is that we only went to the beach on the first full day the team was here, and it’s across the street. I may have to go one more time.

 

After work, the team headed back to the souq area to find gifts for family and friends. As I have alluded to, there hasn’t been much to get in the way of gifts since it would be like going to a store at a westernized (or western) store at the mall. With that being said, the souqs had “more” authentic stuff, or so we believed. We also wanted to grab dinner at our favorite shawarma and falafel joint and go to the Dubai Museum.

 

So when we arrived in the souq area, we went right over to the shawarma place, Lavash. This was now our third time there in the last week and the owner and cut man welcomed us back with smiles and handshakes. Again, my meal of a shawarma, falafel and bottle of water was 10 dirham ($2.25). As we left, we took a picture with our new friends.

 

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Lavash regulars

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With the owner and cut man at Lavash

Next, we walked over to the Dubai Museum and it was like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. Thousands of birds were swooping around at crazy speeds, some narrowly missing people’s heads. When we found out it was outside with the birds AND you had to pay, we decided to run to the friendly confines (the narrow corridors) of the textile souq. It was incredibly strange, but we didn’t feel like we missed out as nobody wanted to birds nosediving at their heads.

 

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The Dubai Museum in the foreground. You can also see some of the thousands of birds speeding around.

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Avoiding the birds for a minute.

Before we knew it, we were back at the area where the scarves were and the whole team was ready to buy. After an hour and a half of negotiating, yes, 90 minutes, the team secured their scarves and gifts. We then got on a boat, paid our 1 dirham, and went across the river to the Deira old souq area.

From there, we sprinted over to the tailor to pick up our shirts. To do this, we had to wind and navigate through the narrow streets which were full of shops.

 

For much of the team, they had not seen the tailors store, found in a small, mostly dark alley, where their tiny store is located. But, while their store is small, we soon confirmed that they are ridiculously good at what they do. Our shirts were ready for pickup and when they pulled our shirts off the shelf, I could not have been more excited about it. This may seem irrational, but I think it was the fact that we had been involved in the whole process: selecting the fabric at another store, carrying it over to the tailor, getting measured, leaving a sheet of fabric on the desk and hoping and praying that it would turn out. When you finally see the finished product, you are left wondering how it could have been turned into a shirt. Craziness. Well, for $13 each, I had two shirts made, and I couldn’t be happier with them. Perfect fit.

 

After seeing our shirts, Matt, Joey and Kate all wanted shirts and Travis and I wanted another. This time, I decided to go big, I selected a fabric for the shirt and a different fabric for the inside of the cuff and underneath the collar. We will see, but I trust my guys to do an amazing job on it. We’ll see Thursday night when we try to pick them up.

Looking into getting another fabric.

Looking into getting another fabric.

 

The before of my new shirt. The blue and orange fabrics are mine.

The before of my new shirt. The blue and orange fabrics are mine.


One of the finished products. My new shirt.

One of the finished products. My new shirt.

I leave at 4:45am Friday morning and time is running short here before the journey resumes on another continent.

Let’s Get Some Service? – Day 19

Today’s blog post will be dedicated to a focus on customer service in the UAE, highlighting how it affected the day. One of the things that is hard to miss here is how many service workers they have in every setting. For example, in the clients office, they have at least two drink people whose exclusive job is to come around offering water, tea or coffee (I contend the coffee may be the best I’ve ever had). Another example is that public restrooms have a minimum of one person assigned at all times to be cleaning it, sometimes there are multiple people even if it is small. Our pool, which is not high traffic, also has two lifeguards. Getting the picture?

 

With that said, I have had varying experiences with customer service, some good, some downright terrible. Today’s experiences begin with a visit to the hospital – yes sir, the hospital. While we were in Oman, Travis gashed his foot on the coral and didn’t want to seek medical attention. The crew on the boat put iodine on it and Travis covered it in bandages when he got home. He described it is a scratch to the pharmasist as he looked for a neosporin type product – let’s be clear, this was nowhere close to a scratch, it was clearly a gash. Well, today, while we were working, he says, he thinks its infected.

 

So, I plan to accompany him to the hospital to get it checked. We went downstairs to grab a cab and every one of them seems to already have been hired. We were 0 for our first 10 tries. Finally an empty cab pulls up next to us, he rolls down the window and asks us where we are going. We say, “the hospital” and he says “I can only take you if you want to go to the airport”. Complete BS; so we move on to the next one. We actually get in this cab and tell him we are headed to the hospital. His response: “that’s the other direction”, finally Travis says, “I just need to go to the hospital, I don’t care if it’s longer”. The cab driver responds by saying, “Sorry”. We were both very upset by this! However, we had been told the day before, by another cab driver that this should never happen as it is against the cab driver rules here. If it is reported, the drivers face an 800 dirham ($200) fine. I wrote both of their cab numbers down and reported them. No excuse not to drive someone to the hospital – ever.

 

The next experience is an add on to an earlier edition of the blog, dealing with the phone company here, as I am getting charged a crazy amount of data to go to normal news websites that barely use any data in the US. As a result, I had opened a ticket asking for help in understanding how the data has been used. Since logging the issue, I have heard from probably 15 different people, each uniquely incompetent in what they do. Every time they email or call, its the billing team telling me everything is right. I also respond every time and tell them that was not my question. “I want technical support and a usage report”. Well, the lucky soul from Du that called me tonight was in for some heat – and I delivered it. He dealt with me asking why I keep hearing from the wrong team and I haven’t heard from the technical team. He kept sidewalking the question, so I kept persisting … for 20 minutes. The beauty of it was that he couldn’t hang up on me. Finally I got him to agree to get technical support to call (and they finally delivered, by calling me today – now I’m sure it will be another month before I get the report).

 

As a result of all of the problems, and the worst customer service experience I have ever had, I logged a complaint with the Telecommunications Agency here. For those who know me, when it comes to service, I am virtually always very flexible and understanding. In this situation though, they have pushed me to the brink and I won’t stand for it.

 

Dubai wants to have 20 million tourists a year by 2020 and as a result they are pushing for better customer service and transparency. Because of this, you see signs everywhere encouraging you to report the types of issues I have been experiencing. My hope in logging these problems is that people won’t have to put up with the absymal service and lack of respect we have been given in certain circumstances. Today was a few bad experiences back to back and had a major impact on the day.

 

On the positive side, Travis’ experience at the hospital was hilarious. The hospital was in a mall and not just any mall. It was a themed mall where each corridor was a different country or culture, ie. Egypt, China, India, Persia, etc. It was ridiculous as we walked in. The office itself was normal and actually quite nice. But things got strange from there. We were pulled into a side room by a nurse (I think it was a nurse, although he had no ID badge on him) before seeing the doctor and he basically diagnosed it and told Travis he could self medicate it. Because he never actually saw a doctor, he didn’t even pay – this was not a normal situation, I’m guessing, even in the UAE. It seemed like Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. For those that are wondering, Travis is just fine and it was more precautionary than anything else; he continues to monitor the situation.

 

 

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I feel like I’m back on the Pacific Rim trip

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What is going on here? Where am I??

The other highlight was going out. Joey was incredibly excited about heading to a speakeasy near our condo. When we arrived, it was anything but a speakeasy. There was club music playing, lights flashing, and a cover band coming on. The club music temporarily gave way to Grease music, which was also strange. Either way, the cover band basically gave us a private show as almost no one was there but us.

 

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Since when is this a speakeasy?

All in all, despite the frustrations and lack of customer service, it was still another great day here.

Two Afghani’s and Two Americans Walk Into a Souq – Day 18

Day 18 started the last week of my Middle Eastern portion of the trip. Again, we worked hard to figure things out and formalize our presentation, which is scheduled for Thursday. As part of our research, we met with the head of our clients food related business. He helped clarify quite a bit for us.

 

After the meeting, most of the team went halfway up the Burj Khalifa, while Joey and I went to the souqs. He had yet to go, so it was fun having him ride along and see what the real Dubai was like, not the western, Las Vegas like experience we have had where we are staying.

 

We started by trying to pick up the custom shirts Travis and I had made, but they weren’t ready. Joey then found the shoe store, where they had some fantastic shoes. They had a deal, 3 pairs for 975 dirham ($260). A pretty good deal…. if you have room in your bag to take them back. The combination of the price and packing space seemed to be Joey’s hold up, but he’s still thinking about it.

 

Next, we took a boat for a quarter across the river to the Old Souq. This is where the real negotiating began. One of the store workers pulled us into his store and Joey found some scarves he liked, so I started asking how much. The thing about these places are that no price is given until they think you are ready to pay and leave. So when the guy finally showed me the price on his calculator, it read 265 dirham ($72)!? For one scarf? All I did was look at him and say no. So he showed me another price, 165 dirham. I still just stared at him and said … no. He was crazy. With this, he started asking where we were from, and I replied USA. He then said he was from Afghanistan. I immediately felt awkward, but the negotiating continued. But then, with a wry smile he said “Our countries are friends, but we (you and I) can still fight”. This was meant to be fight out on price, but it was still really funny.

 

As Joey became more serious about the scarves, he was pushing the vendor hard on price. 15 minutes went by, and they’re starting to pull tons of scarves off the shelves to show him to convince him of the value and make him pay a higher price. Finally, the other store worker brings me a chair to admire the negotiating that is happening. 30 minutes in, still all business. By this point, Joey has become an expert on the scarves, where they were made, the patterns, etc. Meanwhile, I’m dying laughing.

 

Finally, they agreed on a price, but Joey had no cash and it was a cash only place. The vendor then tells Joey to follow him to an ATM and for me to wait in the store. This seemed questionable at best. But, it seemed legit and the ATM was right out the front door. In the meantime, I chatted with the other store attendant. Turns out he was also from Kabul, Afghanistan. We talked about his experience in Dubai and how he missed his family. While it was possible that it was part of the sales game, they knew I wasn’t buying, so it really was just a conversation between people of two very different countries. But, at the same time, I could understand some of what he felt. It was a great experience. Joey returned within minutes and closed the deal (they even gave Joey another 10 dirham back, less than the agreed price) we took a picture with the main salesperson, he gave us his name to find him on Facebook and we bid adieu. Joey felt like he got a great deal, and hopefully the vendor did well for themselves too (I’m pretty sure they did).

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The souqs continue to exceed expectations and be the true cultural experience I was seeking here in the UAE.

Goats on Boats? – Day 17

Day 17 represented our third attempt to get into Oman – after being denied entry twice the day before. Once again, we drove up the coast and arrived at the Omani border. We were all pretty nervous because of the issues we had the day before and we really wanted to make this visit to Oman happen. As we walked into the “Departure Hall”, we paid our fee, got a laugh from the friendliest custom’s officers in the world, they stamped our passports and we left the UAE.

 

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Goat crossing – yes, I had to honk to clear the road at one point.

10 feet later, we had been welcomed by the Sultanate of Oman and had to go into their “Arrival Hall” to request visas. Their arrival hall and custom’s officers were not nearly as professional as the UAE’s. But regardless, they got us started on requesting visas.and before we knew it (and another 50 dirham – ~$13 – later), we were back in the car and on our way.

 

This is where the trip really got started and it was incredible on all fronts. Let’s start with the fact that no one in our group had never thought of going to Oman…. ever, or even knew anything about it before we got there. Within a mile of being in Oman, the claim that the sites were amazing had been validated. The road was hugging the coast and aqua blue sea on one side, with giant rock cliffs on the other. It was a perfectly paved 2 lane road with lights lining the street and pull off parking so you could stop to take pictures.

 

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Never thought I’d say, I drove us to Oman. But now I can – here’s the proof.

We stopped twice to take pictures in the first 5 miles of the drive. Finally the group decided we would never make it to Khasab at that rate and we needed to get there first – we could just stop for pictures on the way back.

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As we continued to ride along the coast and take in breathtaking views of the mountains, water and small cities along the fjords, our UAE radio station blasting out today’s American hits. It made us laugh that we heard “She Looks So Perfect” by 5 Seconds of Summer rolling along the cliffs of Oman.

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Our ride on the beach.

An hour or so past the border, we arrived in Khasab. Many people refer to Khasab as the Norway of Arabia and from what I read, it is because of the rock formations and the fjords, which are similar to those in Scandinavia, although much warmer. The town itself was very very small and seemingly it was deserted. As we tried to find a lunch spot, it looked like there were only three options, Yemeni food, Omani BBQ, or a supermarket. We decided to go to with Omani BBQ where we ate kabob, rice and cucumber/tomato salad on a raised floor – I never heard of Omani BBQ, but it exceeded expectations.

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Next, we set out to find a dhow cruise to take us out into the Straits of Hormuz – we had heard this was the “can’t miss” thing to do. The first place we went to was closed, but the second place we went in, the guy said we could go on a cruise for 100 dirham ($27) in 15 minutes, no problem.

 

With that, we drove over to the Khasab marina and boarded a dhow cruise boat. There were about 15 people on the boat from all over the world, India, Germany and Australia among them. As the boat set out the views were already incredible. We hugged the coast until we ended up in a large bay. As we coasted through the bay, all the sudden we saw a pod of dolphins 100 feet away. We hovered around for a while as the dolphins got comfortable with us, then, all the sudden we gave it some gas. As we motored across the bay, all the sudden there were dolphins on both sides of the boat trying to keep up, maybe 5-10 feet away from the boat. At one point, there were 3 dolphins on one side and 2 on the other. To see the dolphins next to us was crazy to see; they were much bigger than expected.

 

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Two of the dolphins racing to keep up with the boat.

After a few rounds of this, our boat cruised further into the bay until we arrived at a rock in the middle of it where we anchored. The captain was throwing pieces of bananas into the water, which amazingly, was attracting hundreds of rainbow type fish to hover in the area and attack as soon as it hit the water. The crew then distributed the snorkeling gear and our group jumped into the water off the side of the boat.

 

Travis took his quadricopter out and it took off from the boat to get an aerial view of the area (or to do surveillance in Oman – either is possible), which turned out great as well.

 

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View from the onboard camera on the quadricopter. That’s me in mid air jumping off the boat.

Eventually I snorkeled to shore to explore, but I didn’t have shoes and the island was all rock and gravel. Terribly painful. After a while, I just decided to wear the flippers to salvage my feet from any more pain. It looked hilarious, but it was 1000 times better on my feet.

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As the sun began to set and we got close to the port, all the sudden we saw 100 speedboats (no joke, there were a ton of them) filled with cargo covered in green tarps speeding off directly away from shore, seemingly into the center of the Straits of Hormuz. My initial thought was I thought it was a speed boat race, but then I saw the cargo, and thought they must be headed to Iran. The team thought this was impossible since Iran and Oman are not friends, but Matt later found out, that the boats head to Iran. It’s not weapons or drugs or anything, but just American products they can’t get in Iran (TV’s, cigarettes, clothes, etc.). Apparently, the boats come from Iran in the morning, full of goats (yes, goats on boats – sounds like a rap song) and other cargo, and then they leave right at sunset to increase the chances they won’t be caught by the Iranian Navy. It’s a bit freaky to think about, and also makes you think about how close you are to Iran there – 30 to 45 minutes on a boat – but it didn’t feel unsafe, and I don’t think it was. A couple boats even waved at us as we went back to shore.

 

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Some of the hundred or so Iranian smugglers starting the journey across the Straits of Hormuz.

As we went back up the coast, headed back to the UAE, we enjoyed the sunset and realized Oman is truly a hidden gem.

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For those wondering exactly where we were.

For those wondering exactly where we were, here you go.

How Bad is Bad? You Decide – Days 15 & 16

The important part of Thursday was that we met with the CEO for coffee at 5pm. During this session, we discussed the last piece of the project that had not yet been addressed. At the end of the meeting, we talked about what we had been doing to enjoy Dubai. He had two suggestions:

1) Go to Oman

2) Go to Abu Dhabi

As the team broke from this meeting, we were determined to make both happen. On short notice, we booked a car and cleared our plans for Friday to make it happen. However, it didn’t go anywhere near the way we had hoped.

Sometimes it’s tough to sugarcoat a bad day and those stories also contribute to a great travel experience. Well, today, we got a boatload of great experiences from a bunch of messy one’s.

To start off with a brief background: Kate found some girls blog about a trip to Oman (https://blog.virgin-atlantic.com/t5/Our-Places/Mini-Road-Trip-Dubai-to-the-Musandam-Peninsula/ba-p/1408#.U3ZaW_ldWxk), which looked amazing. Our goal was to replicate the same trip.

1) In attempting to get to the first stop, it took Travis taking the car off road before we realized nobody knew where we were going. Matt then stepped in with the iPhone – this seemed good at the time but in the end the results were mixed courtesy of Googlemaps shortcomings. More to come on this. Regardless, this wasted a lot of time.

2) It’s Friday here and so everything is closed. When we got to the second stop, nowhere was open to eat but a mall food court.

3) I start driving with Matt giving directions from his iPhone. We drive 20 miles, which took 45 minutes because it was a windy road. We finally get close to the Oman border and the road becomes a dirt/rock path – Google was still telling us to keep going. We get to a checkpoint and the officer says its closed. Apparently it was only for Emirati’s and the military – not foreigners. Fail. Now we need to go back all the way to where we started from the mall.

Despite this being listed as a fail, there were some positives. First, we were winding in the mountains (we didn’t know they existed here) and saw a ton of wild goats on the side of the road. I even had to honk at one of them to get it to move out of the middle of the street. Second, the experience at the border gate is the type of story I enjoy. It was a mix of his confusion and our confusion – it makes travelling fun. Regardless, it didn’t help us get to where we wanted to go on this trip though.

Off Road
This is a picture of me at the wheel. Note, there is no road, only rocks. Thank you GoogleMaps for the great directions.

4) We finally get on the right path, and drive another 20 miles up the shore to the Oman/UAE border. We go in to pay a fee to leave the UAE and we don’t have the car registration. No registration, no leaving the UAE. The rental company, who knew we were going to Oman never mentioned it to us when we picked up the car. Either way, we called them from the border, and they still couldn’t do anything for us over the phone.

At this point, we were 0-2 on entering Oman. However, this time, the border was 10 feet away and we could see the border check for Oman. But, we had to turn back.

Another positive side to this story was how nice their customs officials were. They let us use their personal cell phone, not the border office phone, to call the rental company. Give credit where it’s due.

5) We drive back 20 miles to find a Budget Rent a Car store. The guy gets us the right forms and now its 5:15 or so. The sun goes down here at 6:50 and most of the things we were going to do in Oman require sunlight – hiking around, boat ride, seeing the shoreline, etc.

Another shout out, the guy at Budget was awesome. He listened to the situation and responded as quickly as possible, and yes, he got results. Thank you Mike!

6) A 30 minute debate ensued as Travis frantically drove us back towards the border. I kept saying, when we get there, it’s going to be dark, and it’s going to be a waste, let’s go back tomorrow and enjoy it and not rush through it. Finally, the group agreed – but this will cost me Abu Dhabi. Either way, by the time the decision was reached, we had driven 15 miles back towards the border. Backtracking again, and now back to Dubai.

7) In the car, it seemed like a good idea to take the others to the shawarma place we went to a few days before – it cost $1 for a shawarma or fallafel. Well, again, Googlemaps had no idea what was going on. The voice was way off with what it was saying as compared to the screen. We have Matt trying to figure out whats on the screen, Travis is trying to drive and has no idea what to do. A couple times he stopped with a green light or even on a divided highway (with cars behind us) and broke the law with illegal turns. Not good, not good at all.

8) We finally get to the shawarma area and we can’t park.

9) Once we finally get the shawarma, we need gas. Travis pulls into the gas station the wrong way. Both the employees working there and other customers are upset. Not sure why this was a huge deal for them, but it seemed to be.

10) When we get back to the condo, we don’t know where to put the car. Most of the parking is reserved and while our owner has a spot we don’t know where it is. We’re driving around the lot, which has cars parked illegally everywhere, cars acting aggressively to steal spots or get around. Horrible. Finally, we share our problem with the parking attendant and not only does he not help, but he starts getting sarcastic with us and having a good time doing it.

By now, I have had it. Somehow Travis gets the job done after I took an aggressive approach with the guy. The issue was, he thought we were playing games and lying about staying in the condo above.

So I as I think about where today went south, sometimes you just have a bad day and tomorrow will be better. We plan to head back to Oman and hopefully we can make it 1 for 3 (because a .333 batting average is Hall of Fame status) and also get back to the UAE. If you click the link I included above, it truly looks incredible and I can’t wait to see it myself.

 

Old School Chic – Day 14

Another day of work and for the most part, business as usual on that end. The best part of the work day was the decision to go to the pool during lunch. Nothing like taking a quick dip before headed back to the office (aka our condo). With that said, I’ll quickly move into the more interesting part of the day which was post work. Travis, Gina and I hopped on the Metro and headed back to the Fish Souq/Gold Souq area once again in search of a great stories and possibly custom clothing.

The second we got off the Metro, we blasted with the smell of fish – the station was right across the way from the Fish Souq, so this made sense despite the fact that the market had been closed for 8 hours. As we came out of the station, we headed back to the area we had been in a few days before. Since we had previously found a textile vendor in that neighborhood, we knew we wanted to talk to the tailor they had recommended to ensure the price would be as low as we expected. When we got to the area, we searched for a few minutes to find the tailor. Again, there are many streets and alley’s filled with shops so we had to walk around for a few to find the place. We discovered the place in a less frequented alley and proceeded inside. It was about 10′ by 8′ and filled with tables, sewing machines and finished products. It was obvious they do a lot of business despite the location as they seemed to be busy altering and creating shirts when we went in. They confirmed for us that if we brought them material, tailoring/creating a shirt would be 30 AED ($7.50). With that, we ran back over to the textile shop.

The place was lined with fabrics, both for suits and shirts. I wanted to test the waters with a couple casual shirts instead of going with more expensive material off the bat, just to make sure they would turn out right. Once Travis and I initially selected the materials we wanted, the gentleman working in the store kept telling us they didn’t have enough fabric to make a shirt out of it. I’m looking at the roll and thinking, how much fabric do they need? I’m not a huge guy and it looked like the roll had the 2.5 meters necessary to make the shirt. He kept pointing us to more expensive fabrics and so I quickly realized he thought he could outsmart us. I had a strategy and couldn’t be changed. I was going with the casual patterns I wanted – no questions.

Finally, Travis asked another guy in the store who appeared to be the owner: “How much fabric do we need? Why is this not enough?” With this, finally they conceded and let us get the patterns we wanted. We took them right over to the tailor and got sized up. As we were doing this, a British couple walked in and took a look at a finished product they had made. It was crazy. Pink silk inside of a black blazer, red thread on the buttons. It was chic. Turns out the guy owns a business, capitalizing on the arbitrage of having cheap suits made and selling them in the UK at a huge markup. It costs about $140 to make a suit, and they sell it in the UK for $1,100. Craziness.

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The before (the plaid fabrics are mine)

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After getting sized up, we ventured around the neighborhood to find other textile stores and food. Like the previous night, we found another shawarma restaurant. The combined total of my dinner, shawarma and fallafel, was 9 AED ($2.25).

As we rode the Metro back, we were crazy excited to see what our end products will look like. In two days, we will find out. 

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Note the sign in front of the Fish Souq Metro stop. We saw this on the way back.

*Update, as I write the post for Wednesday night and it’s now Thursday, we have just decided to audible our plans for the weekend and head to Oman tomorrow and Abu Dhabi on Saturday. More details to come.