Middle East series: Dubai

Our stay in Dubai was the shortest leg in our Middle East sojourn but I gotta say, the most fun-filled and I guess most meaningful because I got to be with important people in my life. Although we did some official duties here, our visit was more personal.

When we arrived last November, I was able to blog right away our desert safari experience because I was so excited about it hehe. You can view it here.

But this is the rest of the story.

From our last visit to one Philippine school, an officer from the Embassy drove us from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. The drive took us less than two hours, and as we enter the city, you can immediately feel the vibe that is Dubai.

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That night, we met up with one of my closest friends, Bel and her husband Sherwin, at the Dubai Mall. Being the biggest mall in the city, there was a lot to do here. Since we cannot cover everything in one go, we just had dinner, watched the musical fountain show, took pictures in front of the Dubai Aquarium, and visited the Souk where I bought earrings for Mischa. Afterwards, we drove around the city and saw the Burj Al Arab.

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The following day, we dispensed our official tasks. Met with the The Filipino Channel Middle East office to discuss the regional summit again, then paid a courtesy call on the Consul General.

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Thank goodness, it didn’t take us that long. lol. Had lunch at Ikea where I wanted to but A LOT of stuff (Manila should have an Ikea!) but was able to restrain myself. After resting at the hotel, we flagged a cab and asked to be taken to the public beach so we can see the Burj Al Arab in daytime but the driver stupidly drove us around, and we ended up not being able to go since it got too dark. Tsk tsk.

Met up again with Bel and Sherwin that night. After buying some stuff, they brought us to the Burjuman Mall, to discount stores for pasalubong, then finally to yet another mall, the Mall of the Emirates, where they have the Ski Dubai.

Our hosts

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The next day, before we left for the safari, I was glad to have lunch with a cousin and his family, who I haven’t seen in a long time. It was also my first time to meet my nephew, MC.

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Tiring but fulfilled trip. So glad we ended on a high note.

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Tiara Restaurant

My review of the Tiara Restaurant deserves a separate post from the Abu Dhabi post. This was the only fine dining experience we allowed ourselves to have during our Middle East trip. The restaurant was located atop a revolving deck on a 55-storey tower attached to the Marina Mall. You reach it via a dizzying elevator ride, and thank God I was too far from the glass windows to notice.

The restaurant was highly recommended to us by the protocol officer of the Philippine Embassy. And why not, you get to enjoy 360 degree views of the city while sitting down to a proper meal. The deck takes on a leisurely rotation, which takes about an hour and a half.

And guess what, our server is again a Filipina.

Meals start off with bread with several spreads. We didn’t order any more starters aside from that, and went on to order entrees, which we shared with each other. Mine was the steak, which was done to perfection.

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Middle East series: Abu Dhabi

While both are Arab countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are worlds apart. Saudi is steeped in tradition, UAE on the other hand is almost as modern as the West. Being a relatively open country, especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai, its locals have also somehow adapted to the ways of life of the expats it is trying to beckon albeit still keeping its own norms alive.

My first “home” in the UAE is Abu Dhabi. Being the capital city, one can feel the power that it wields as it hosts most government offices and big businesses. Tall and sleek buildings adorn its wide boulevards, alongside powerful mosques. We landed at night time, and despite the lateness of the hour, the city was throbbing with vibrancy. Also, much like the huge urban places I’ve been to, it is teeming with huge malls that would the shopaholic’s heart skip a beat.

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Of course, as it is the main purpose of our visit to the Middle East, we inspected the Philippine schools here. And again, I will save my boring official report for the office, and stick to blogging the more fun parts of the travel hehe.

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Our office is also co-convening the Regional Summit in the Middle East, a brand of our Global Summit, which we have first introduced in Rome, Italy, where the husband went in 2012, and are now bringing to Abu Dhabi later this year. Since we are in the preparatory stages, we met with Philippine Ambassador Grace Princesa and the Bayanihan Council, an umbrella organization of Filipino associations in the UAE.

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And conducted an ocular inspection of the summit’s venue, the Dusit Thani Hotel.

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We had another meeting with other Filipino groups, this time, at the Ambassador’s residence called Maharlika House. The place was a showcase of abaca, a local plant from which cloth, furniture and other products are produced.

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Was also elated to have been able to hear mass in Filipino. Yay! Due to the large number of Filipinos and Catholics at that, they were given a special time and place to have masses in one of the big churches there. Several times that evening, I lost my head for a while and forgot that I was out of the Philippines. Out of the thousands that attended mass, I think I only saw about a handful of foreigners there. Very cool.

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The hotel we stayed in, though, was quite forgettable. It was so-so. The Embassy booked us there, and while we had a bigger budget, it was not a good idea to ask for a higher star hotel as we were supposed to be prudent since we are part of the government. But still, it would have been nice to have stayed in a newer and a bit swankier joint than the Ramee Apartments. I would have loved to experience more than threadbare sheets and dim lights. I guess I should just be thankful that the place was clean enough, and they had wifi, even if only in the table nearest the door. And that it was just a stone’s throw away from the Al-Wahda Mall, other discount stores for pasalubong, and restaurants.

Middle East series: Yanbu

After Jeddah, we flew to Yanbu. The city was more laid-back, and reminds you of the cities outside of Metro Manila in the Philippines. Think Cagayan de Oro City or Davao or Cebu. Although I know it is an industrial area, our visit was limited again to Philippine schools and residential areas. However, my woes about not being able to take photos of the city just continued. While we can freely do it indoors, caution is still the name of the game even if you are inside your own car. So it was the same behind-the-glass drama. And much of are taken in blurs.

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We were supposed to inspect three schools but ended up in two. And I got to meet their local owners. Very nice gentlemen.

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We also met with the Filipino community there, composed mostly of industrial workers, engineers, and their dependents.

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And here, I have to say a lot about the hotel we stayed in, which was absolutely divine! Raddison Blu Hotel is just a few minutes away from the airport, a situated just on the banks of the Red Sea. We were treated to a glorious sunset the first night we were there.

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That view is just outside our messy room. haha. Thank the heavens you don’t have to see the rest of it.

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And this is the lobby downstairs.

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I love the whole place! It was a place to relax had we not been there to work. It was quiet, just like the rest of the city we saw. Wifi was excellent (which is really a must. And it was added bonus that the front office manager and the master chef were Filipinos. Hooray!

Here I also got to try the traditional kabsa, and om ali for dinner one night. The dessert was oh so yummy!

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And their buffet breakfast is reminiscent of Filipino buffet breakfasts, which are normally absent in the other places I visited such as Vancouver, London, and Jerusalem. I look happy here, don’t I? I got a little of everything.

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Middle East series: Jeddah

Okay, so this is beyond late. I’d try some defense – a series of unfortunate events, the loooong holidays in the Philippines, work, … the list may go on. I’d still like to post the next few ones anyway as my travel to the Middle East is something that I will always want to remember. However, despite the fact that some of my drafts languished for a couple of months, I was able to post this last November, because I was so excited to blog about riding a camel haha.

So I’ll start my Middle East from the first city I landed on – Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The thing with being there though, we could not openly take pictures of the general public, most especially the Saudi people, and MOST especially the women, who to say frankly, are beyond beautiful.

But I thought it was pretty cool too that I got to wear this hajib and abaya, traditional Moslem wear for women, every time we went out, which are required for all women, Moslem or not.

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Suffice to say, we also did not go out much, save for the official duties we were there for, which are to inspect a Philippine school and pay a visit to the Consulate General.

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I also got to meet a real princess! (although she was very low-key and reminds you of your own grandmother)

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But from behind the car windows, I could see how urban meets tradition in this city. Mosques, of course, abound. Buildings range from low- to mid-rise whose architecture are typical within the kingdom. I was told by one of our hosts that most of the structures there are made of hollow blocks and cement, and barely has steel. And almost everything has that sand-colored hue, which really makes one feel that he is in the desert.

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Sadly too, I didn’t get to take photos of our hotel room. But we stayed at the Ramada Continental Hotel in downtown Jeddah. We stayed there for two nights, and it was pretty crowded since it was Hajj time, and many of those who joined the pilgrimage were trickling out of the city. Again, I feel so cheated that I wasn’t able to take photos. They all seemed to come from different parts of the world, and it was fascinating to see them mingling and milling about. It would have been a traveler’s dream to immortalize the moments that you saw and feel. Oh well.

My first taste of authentic Arabian food did not happen in Jeddah since we had western food most of the time. But these two were imprinted in my mind: the seafood feast I had and the city’s famous Albaik chicken, which was a little too much for me (4 pieces of chicken, bread and fries are too much).

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Back from the desert

I’m back from the land of perpetual sand, heat, dates, and good-looking guys. I haven’t said much on this blog but I was totally apprehensive prior to my departure for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While far from being a jetsetter, I could say I have been around. However, this is the first time I will set foot in a foreign country that has a lot of restrictions. Truth be told, being a woman, I initially feared for my safety because of the numerous reports of abuse and crimes inflicted on Filipino women. Nevertheless, armed with years of traveling and professional experience, confidence, my gadgets, my abaya and hajib, and other whatnots, off I went to that arid part of the world.

Turns out, as with my other foreign trips, I went back chock full of new memories, fresh insights and learning I will forever treasure. My senses were on high alert as I savored and absorbed everything I saw, heard, smelled, felt and tasted. It was a total feast! I cannot of course, cram all of that in one go so I am chopping my posts in pieces, and hopefully, I get to cover everything–from the food, to the places we stayed in; from the peculiarities of other cultures, to the feeling of home because of the ubiquitous Filipino everywhere I turn.

In all those four cities I visited–Jeddah and Yanbu in Saudi, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE, I was sure to bump into a kababayan. I now realized that it is true: that the Filipino has gone global! I have been studying and eating and drinking and breathing the phenomenon of Filipino migration in almost thirteen years now. And I have conducted dialogues with Filipino communities worldwide, but seeing the diaspora in the Middle East has brought it to a whole different level. I have never seen them almost run a foreign country! It may be a little exaggerated but I thought that so many establishments and companies will greatly suffer should the Philippines pull out its numbers. Really. I think Filipinos are that important. They may get other expatriates to run their businesses but they will never get the same results as when Filipinos have run them. Never get the same competence, care and compassion. They make businesses and industries thrive in their own unique ways. They need not pretend, put on fake accents, or try to integrate hard or blend in. They just do naturally. Too bad, they aren’t doing it for their own country. It was really an eye opener for me. I never felt more Filipino pride when outside the country than during these last two weeks.

The Inbal Jerusalem Hotel

Because the organizers of the Diaspora Conference I attended sponsored the participants’ accommodation, I got lucky enough to stay in the wonderful Inbal Jerusalem Hotel. It is a five-star work of art located in the city center of Jerusalem. This is what the facade looks like:

I loved this place so much during my entire stay there. After long, grueling hours traveling from Manila to Jerusalem, it just welcomed me with open arms, and I practically ran and got swallowed in its luxurious surroundings. It was very spacious and tastefully decorated. I had two twin beds put together all to myself (wish I had the hubby and kid with me then!). My beautiful room overlooked the hotel patio, which was great, but which I would have traded for a view of the Old City. Well, couldn’t complain. This became my home for four days.

The bathroom was also very impressive and clean (although I didn’t get to take a picture) with all the wonderfully smelling toiletries. There were complimentary fruits and water, as well as everyday morning papers. Internet connection was very fast and reliable. You can even order room service or schedule a spa appointment online. Staff were also really, really nice.

Five stars!!