To the Unexpected!

This weekend while completing my ritual pre-jog bowl of oatmeal with a healthy dose of New York Times on the side, I came across an editorial that caused me to stop and think…

A Thanksgiving Toast by Anonymous

Sitting down with friends and family today, there will be thanks for the steady currents, flowing out of the past, that have brought us to this table… But it’s worth raising a glass (or suspending a forkful for those of you who’ve gotten ahead of the toast) to be thankful for the unexpected, for all the ways that life interrupts and renews itself without warning…

It will never cease to surprise how the condition of being human means we cannot foretell with any accuracy what next Thanksgiving will bring. We can hope and imagine, and we can fear. But when next Thanksgiving rolls around, we’ll have to take account again, as we do today, of how the unexpected has shaped our lives…

Isn’t that the truth! To think I now live in a city that as a little girl I had no idea existed!

Back to Thanksgiving… Thursday evening, while dining on turkey amongst friends from Syria, Palestine, Egypt, South Africa and Virginia, I told the table that I was thankful for my health, fantastic husband, family and friends. But, having read the aforementioned editorial, I would like to add an addendum…

A Toast To 2009—Whose Unexpectedness has brought so many delights, challenges and wonders!

1) I am thankful that I can read.

Recently, upon arrival to Oman via Air Arabia, I was asked to fill out a standard entry/exit form before passing through customs. While filling in the details I felt a tug at my purse, which immediately cause me to turn and grab hold of my bag. Staring at me was not a pickpocket, nor a little kid, but a 39-year-old laborer from Hyderabad that spoke not a lick of English or Arabic. Wondering what he wanted, I said “Yes?” upon which he thrust his passport and entry/exit form into my hand with a look of “I don’t know what they want from me, but please help me get through customs”. His look was that of desperation and I was reminded of my arrival 6 years before to Japan where I too knew not a lick of the local language. Happy to help, I opened his passport, filled out his form, smiled and pointed him to the right counter.

Not being able to read is like missing one of the vital senses. To Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Kinney—my kindergarten and first grade teachers—Thank you for teaching me how to read. The skill has come in handy!

2) I am thankful that I am free to dream, do and be.

To come from a place that says that if you dream and work hard, regardless of social circumstance, you can do and become just about anything is very empowering. Or in my case (as a petite female), anything except for a Giants quarterback!

Minor details aside, I remember that before coming to Dubai my friends and family asked questions like—Are you going to have to wear an abaya? Will they let you drive? How are women treated in the work force? What about your freedom? Well, to make a long answer short my responses are no, yes, very well and fine thank you. What I have learned is that freedom comes in many forms… While in NYC I may have the freedom to vote, it is difficult to walk down the street free from whistles, catcalls, requests for money, the sight of daily crimes… Here most expats will tell you they love Dubai because they feel so free—free from violence, from the worry of making ends meet (Although recent news may start to change this. Inshallah, I hope not.), free from whistles, catcalls, cold weather, etc. Freedom to and freedom from… both are vital freedoms!

More on freedom to… I recently attended TEDxDubai and was surrounded by a room full of Dubai’s most motivated people. The energy was palpable and the dream-o-meter on high. Surrounded by women covered in black—whispers of excitement, plans to do great deeds and general happiness permeated the air.

Despite what the papers say about the current economic situation… people still come to Dubai for the freedom to dream, do and be and for the freedom from certain things “at home” as well. In the land of palm shaped islands, indoor ski slopes and tall towers, the built environment is a testament to the imagination and will power of its people. This is an amazing place indeed!

3) I am thankful for the unexpected.

What would life be like without the unexpected goat that walks in front of your car, the endless visits to the “male side” of the local courts to get stamps for a business license, the surprising lack of canned pumpkin for certain North American holidays, the tiny fish that brush my ankles in the turquoise blue waters of the Gulf, the friends made via visits to a hidden warehouse in Al Quoz, the newfound ability to run in 100 degree heat (something I never would have been able to do in New York), the vicarious excitement experienced via random quotes and announcements of weddings and now children on Facebook (seems like the world has decided to breed in this year we call 2009), the joy experienced while driving through the desert to Zig Zigler as he explains what life was like growing up as an aspiring businessman in America’s Deep South, the beautiful sounds of Syrian hip hop at a recent concert…

To health, happiness and unexpectedness in 2010 and beyond!


P.S. Happy Post Thanksgiving and Eid Mubarak!


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Spontaneous Excursions

Around the time I turned 12 years old, my mother decided to go from being a full time mom, to a full time mom plus middle school Spanish teacher. This made sense given her social and compassionate nature, as well as her native language abilities. As a side note, for those of you that know and have seen me (a “gringa” as my dad puts it), this may come as a surprise but Spanish is the first language of both my parents—Dominican/Puerto Rican Spanish and Honduran Spanish. So, despite my fair skin and Mid Atlantic drawl, I grew up eating arroz con frijoles and yuca regularly, watching Sábado Gigante and dancing salsa and merengue when my parent’s Latin American guests came to town.

Let’s not digress… Around the same time my mother started working again, she got this crazy notion that it would be fun to not only teach Spanish, but to take 50 middle schoolers to Spain and France each year, with the help of only a handful of parents and the French teacher in her school. While other adults thought it nuts of her to take on such a responsibility, my mother continued to lead annual European pilgrimages and treated the trips as is they were sacred for over 15 years.  Lucky for me, she always got enough students to sign up, that the tour agency she used, always gave her a free ticket and hotel stays for a guest of choice—me for 3 years, my sister for 4 years and after that my father.

The first year I went to Europe (as an eighth grader), I thought I had gone to heaven. All of a sudden my world went from being a typical Virginia suburb (football, apple pie, and soccer moms) to what seemed like an infinite world of possibility and unknown delights (bull fights, tapas and European young men). While other tourists looked forward to visiting sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Museo del Prado, I was more interested in seeing how people lived—grocery store produce sections, familial interactions, back alleyways and colored laundry hanging from door to door. My first 10 days abroad were more than magical; they were life changing. In fact, the day I returned home, I spent the remaining 355 days of the year looking forward to my next 10 day overseas adventure and made a vow to myself that I would move overseas the second I graduated from college (FYI: the city of choice—Osaka, Japan).

Today, nearly two decades after I took that first excursion abroad, I still feel the same excitement and anticipation I felt as a middle schooler every time I set foot on an airplane. Due to work and a wonderful first wedding anniversary, in the last two months I’ve been in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Fujairah, Muscat, Amsterdam, Washington DC, San Juan, Mayagüez, San Germán, Charlotte and my hometown Burke, Virginia. Needless to say, I think life is a lot of fun, especially now that travel is no longer a 355 day aspiration, but a way of existence!

What continues to amaze me day in and day out is that no matter whether in a tiny village in the mountains of the UAE, a Puerto Rican university town, or a cosmopolitan city like Washington, DC, I see SO much kindness, helpfulness, goodwill and kids on roller shoes everywhere I go! (The person that invented those beautes—pure Genius!) Despite what CNN likes to broadcast across its global networks, I still firmly believe that there is more good on this Earth than bad—by a long shot!

It is Independence Day in the United States and I just happen to be in my hometown celebrating.

To the freedom to explore the world and its people!

Next time, I’ll be jotting from Gulf,

P.S. The video above is a montage of recent excursions to Abu Dhabi, UAE and Muscat, Oman. Do I recommend that you visit?! You betcha!

P.P.S. The awesome soundtrack for the video is titled, “Salsa di Soy” (FabiuS Remix) by Boom Boom Beckett.

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Dubai Dubai (to the theme of “New York, New York”)

As they say in this region of the globe, “Peace be upon you.” It has been a while since I’ve jotted in the Gulf, so here is another installment from sunny and starting-to-be-sleepy-Dubai! This entry is all about music, so I hope you will sing and dance along the way. The blue skies are all but gone in the UAE. That said, we are most certainly not “singing in the rain.” With the absence of color in the atmosphere, I look towards the turquoise Gulf and brilliant red flamboyan trees around town to add color to my days. A strange feeling rumbles in my tummy… I can feel the rhythm of New York City in me leaving and the beats of Dubai shouting louder and louder…

People that get to know me well, learn two things pretty quickly:

  1. I work out every day–the gym and pool are where I get my thinking done.
  2. I don’t go anywhere without my iPod. The next best thing to a first class airplane ticket abroad is a piece of music that takes you there anyway.

So, as you can imagine, running with my Nano on shuffle mode is frankly a trip down memory lane… “I’m So Excited” (Pointer Sisters, 1980s car trips across the South, in the company of family and our big blue chevy)… “Teenage Dirtbag” (Weatus, old teenage friend)… “Khuda Jaane” (Vishal-Shekhar, Shilpa Rao & Kk, the Bollywood radio tune that greeted me my first day driving in Dubai)… Over the past few weeks the sounds of the UAE have been all but quiet for this gal of the Gulf, have a listen…

No ShortsSong: “Don’t Know Why” (Nora Jones cover)
Singer: lounge singer
Location: Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort, BiCE Sky Bar

Another regular evening of merriment with “the boys” (i.e. my husband and our very good friend). Nothing like a full moon, lapping waves and real live music in the background. Relaxing into conversation. Good sounds and good company… “Excuse me sir.” “Yes?” “Sir, we cannot serve you?” “May I ask, why not?” “Sir, you are not wearing pants.” “Excuse me?” “We cannot serve people without pants.” “But these are designer shorts. They match my loafers. This is a beach resort.” “Sir, no pants, no service.” “But, there is no one here. It’s a week night, 11pm. My legs are under the table. We are outside.” “Sir, I am sorry, we cannot serve you.” “Well, what should I do? This is crazy. We’re at the beach!” “Sir, you aren’t wearing pants.” “Well, do you have any pants I could borrow?” “Uh, yes sir.” “Well, can I use them?” “Yes sir.” 5 minutes later… “Here you go sir” (waiter pulls out track pants…) “Okay, on top of my designer shorts, comes these no label track pants. May I order now?” “Yes sir…” Moral of the story—next time you go to the Hilton, skip the Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Prada. Dress code: all but smart, heavy on the casual!

Song: Emirati drum and dance
Singer: 50 local men
Location: the Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall is a bit of a misnomer. With 1200+ shops, hotels, an aquarium, ice skating ring and large sprawling avenues, this place is more like a city with a roof on top, than “just a place to shop”. While I used to be pretty down on malls (open air shopping was my preference), when the day starts out at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, having a covered city to walk in and brush shoulders with the masses starts to make lot of sense.

Now, if you were expecting a peaceful shop, think again! No trip to this city within a city would be complete without witnessing a few street (I mean hallway) performances. The video below is a glimpse that approximates what I saw last weekend.

Song: Silence (actually street horns and lots of them)
Location: Sharjah

En route to the Sharjah Biennial with a craving for art. Lost as usual. Click radio on. “Low” (Flo Rider). Click radio off. With little interest in the tunes on he air and lots of traffic, I begin to look around. Is this the UAE? Or, Pakistan? The streets and medians are packed with men in tan colored tunics with pants—some laughing, some eating, some holding hands. Wooden boats filled with imports from far away lands dot the coast. Pass the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, pass the Radisson SAS, definitely lost. Pull into a gas station and ask a kind woman for directions. Her reply “Yani… yani…” The journey continues. There are times when I feel a part of the landscape and others when I don’t quite fit in… Spotted, one hidden art museum, just in time for it to close. Oh well! At least the wooden door cleaners are worth a snap!

Sharjah Door Washing

I love exploring!

To music and until next time…

These boot will keep on walkin’!


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Beyond Words

My new venture has me traveling through beach, desert and mountains weekly. I’ve visited mountain-top schools, battling goats along the way. I’ve met the kindest old women whose eyes are the only part of their body I could see. Each day brings new adventures, new stresses and much to think about. Education and business occupy my mind. Life is good! So much to see and learn!

Last month I had the fortune of hosting a visitor—my father-in-law. Through him I saw the UAE through new eyes again. This really is a beautiful place, construction and all! Instead of sharing my thoughts this week through words, I thought I would resort to pictures. The video below includes pictures of my recent travels through the UAE and Bahrain. The music is titled, “Samadhi” by SaReGaMa and can be found here. I hope you enjoy the film below. I certainly enjoyed playing with iMovie along the way.



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With a new venture in the kitchen and many projects on the stove, the past three weeks have not left much room for contemplation. That said, I often think of you all as I jaunt through the Gulf via desert, air and sea. Consider the following excerpts personal post cards. With xoxo, A (P.S. F stands for family, friend or fancier.)

Road to Jebel Ali

Late January 2009

70 degrees

Jebel Ali (via desert)

Dear F,

As per the UAE government’s request, today I went for another HIV test. Tell me, do other governments make such requests of their residents?!

As to avoid the mid-day rush, at sunrise I filled the tank of my Thrifty Civic and headed for the desert. Goodbye Dubai skyscrapers. Hello sand, power lines and import/exports! When I arrive at my destination—a small German hospital nestled where desert meets port—I gave myself a mental pat on the back. 20 minutes early! Not bad for a girl ¼ Latina by blood!

Upon arrive at the hospital entrance, I noticed that the doors were sealed shut. Without much thought, I stood outside the door amongst my fellow early-risers. Within 30 seconds a hush fell over the crowd. Wondering why, I took a pause from my text messaging and was greeted by about three-dozen male stares—mainly Indian, Pakistani and likely Bengali laborers. To be an object of a crowd’s fascination is accompanied by a rather bizarre feeling of self-consciousness! What, is there something between my teeth? Could it be my curly hair?!

Soon after the doors opened, a doctor greeted me and laughed. He escorted me to the “nicer” side of the hospital to proceed with my “test.”

Visions of 1960s America filled my mind. How can separate be equal?


PS The test results turned out fine!

Bahrain Pottery

Late February 2009

80 degrees

Bahrain (via air)

Dear F,

What a day! I am currently in Bahrain to attend a meeting between the Ministry of Education and UNESCO to discuss a strategy and plan for the creation of an ICT education and research center to service the whole of the Gulf. Since this is my first time visiting the Kingdom, I decided to come a day early to experience the wonders of this little Gulf Island.

Lucky for me, the exuberant hotel bellhop was more than happy to carry my small bag to my room. “Tea madame?” “Dates madame?” I thanked him, over tipped him and then asked if he could find me a guide for the day. “No problem madame!”

Thirty minutes later, I found myself hopping in the car with Karala’s version of John Travolta! Think tight white jeans, orange polyester on top, popped collar! “Call me Nice!” the driver said as he handed me a make shift business card with the word “Nice” on the name line. I quickly text messaged my husband the car’s license plate number and hopped in!

One fort, Shia farmland, Saudi border patrol tower, pottery and National Museum later, I requested a stop off at the Manama Suq. While my driver snored loudly in the car, I roamed the streets for fresh local bread. Score! Clay oven and 10 cent naan! Delish!

Thinking of you from the Kingdom,


P.S. To see additional Bahrain photos, check out my Flickr site!


February 27, 2009

95 degrees

Off the Dubai Coast

The sea is the most peaceful place in the world until you lose your wedding ring while dropping an anchor in the vast Gulf!



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Sitting in a Sandbox

February 7, 2009—It’s nearly two months since I put pen to paper, or rather text to screen, yet so much has happened in Dubai, the world and my mind. It is the times when we are the most mentally active that we should be writing, reflecting or at least scribbling down thoughts, yet somehow we let meetings, schedules, cleaning and other “important affairs” get in the way. Or, at least this is often the case for me…

After a whirlwind two-week tour of New York, Virginia, Washington DC and London over the New Year holiday, returning to Dubai was a rather quiet affair. The moment my plane landed on January 3, I received the unfortunate news that Shaikh Rashid Bin Ahmad Al Mualla, the Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Umm Al Quwain, had passed away, leaving the whole of the UAE in mourning for days and in some places weeks to come. As I drove my Thrifty rental car down Sheikh Zayed Rd. home, I sat teary-eyed from a combination of the news, lack of sleep and the thick melodramatic harmonies crackling over the radio. Even stations like Virgin and Radio One broadcast Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, instead of their normal selection of Brittany, Rihanna and Kanye. Dubai was at a seeming standstill—no sounds of construction, very little traffic… just me, my thoughts and the longing tones of the radio.

January 20, 2009—17 days after my return home (my trip to the States—while wonderful—helped me mentally confirm that the UAE is now “home sweet home”), I sat teary-eyed again within the confines of my high-rise apartment. Witnessing the inauguration of President Barack Obama (44th President of the US of A) on CNN/Facebook live was a moment that will remain etched in my memories for years to come. While I may have been alone in my Dubai living room, I was certainly not alone in spirit. Thanks to CNN and Facebook I was able to live microblog the event with friends from around the world. While I posted updates like, “I am hoping 2009 will bring better news than the Economist World in 2009 Conference brought today” and “Amen,” one NYC pal wrote, “I think the guy who had to change the White House website probably enjoyed flipping the switch” and another shared, “tolerance and curiosity — go Bam.” From his mobile phone in Cali another friend wrote, “I am absolutely verklempt due to Obama’s inauguration.”

Throughout Obama’s speech not only did I get to watch millions of people cheer from the steps of the US capital, but I also got to read thousands of live microblog updates from laptop and mobile Facebookers around the world! My friends, this is the future of TV!

Technology aside, the words of our now President’s inaugural speech still sit heavily on my brain:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness…

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task…

“Pick ourselves up”, “duties to the world”, “giving our all to a difficult task”…

January 21, 2009—The National newspaper post-inauguration headline read, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward.” People were celebratory at work.

February 9, 2009—Sitting on my sofa typing, I might as well be in a sandbox preparing to build a castle. The words, “pick ourselves up”, “duties to the world”, “giving our all to a difficult task” echo in my head. Over the last seven months through research, school visits and conversations with local stakeholders, the education needs of the MENA region are just too compelling to ignore. Therefore, I have decided to leave my old job (think episodes from a UAE version of the Office) and instead pursue work more in line with the region’s needs and my values. With several education projects started, company set-up logistics and staffing on the road ahead, 2009 will most certainly be an interesting and challenging ride!

“Pick ourselves up”, “duties to the world”, “giving our all to a difficult task”…

Happy 2009.


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The mood around Dubai seems rather damp these days… Perhaps it is due to the large amounts of rainfall we’ve experienced over the last week, leaving this city’s sun-lovers feeling a bit grey. After all, wasn’t it last Thursday that Dubai Eye Radio announced that this year we’ve had record rainfall—22mm in one day?! Or, maybe the city is quiet due to the holidays? This year UAE National Day, Eid al-Adha, Christmas and the Islamic New Year conveniently fall right in a row—a fortune that many expats have interpreted as an open invite to go home for the entire month of December. Speaking of which, New Yorkers and Virginians—I’ll be in town at the end of the month!

Regardless, I find myself struggling to make sense of the events that are going on around me in this city often characterized by lavish parties, awe-inspiring buildings and the reputation for being a place where one can earn a quick buck. Seth Godin points out in his book All Marketers Are Liars that anyone interested in marketing must understand the power of frames. He writes:

Frames aren’t just a tactic. Frames go to the heart of what marketing is today. If you’re unable to tack your idea onto a person’s worldview, then that idea will be ignored… A picture of Houston’s polluted waters and dead birds is just as accurate as one of Houston’s skyscrapers and busy shopping malls, but they tell very different stories to very different people…Frames are the words and images and interactions that reinforce a bias someone is already feeling (p. 41).

This begs the question, what am I feeling? How about those around me? Should we think of Dubai as the city that knows how to host one heck of a party—the $20 million grand opening of the Atlantis Resort last month was absolutely spectacular (think Beijing Olympic-style fireworks, movie stars galore, lavish dinners, loads of wine… in other words, totally FUN!). Or, is Dubai the place that of recent likes to call people “redundant?” As this Newsweek cover story points out, the same company that funded the Atlantis’s multimillion-dollar celebration, a couple weeks later announced that it was laying off 500 people. That company is not alone. Every other day I hear about another real estate or banking company letting people go.

I suppose things are never black and white, which makes understanding and narrating Dubai’s current economic story ever more of a challenge. Should I frame my version of this tale through the lenses of Gucci glasses, or should I stick to a more generic approach? Maybe I should try bifocals?

As I grapple to understand the character my version of Dubai will play in the current world economic downturn, I will leave you with a brief retelling of a recent night I had on the town…

On November 26th, 2008 I spent the evening playing Norah Jones hits, Autumn Leaves and various tango numbers under the stars. Surrounded by my fellow orchestra members, Dubai A-listers, magazine photographers and a fantastic jazz singer from France, we all gathered at the outdoor amphitheater of the One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Boucheron—the luxury jewelry company, not the cheese. The evening could have been a scene out of the Middle East’s version of the Great Gatsby. While the orchestra played, Russian models strutted up and down the venue aisles wearing more diamonds around their necks than what is currently on display at Tiffany’s, New York. The French singer we accompanied must have hit a hundred seductive poses for the local paparazzi and the tango group that followed made sure to do nothing less than impress. When it came time for the president of Boucheron to give a speech, the amphitheater quieted and the cigar smoke cleared. He spoke briefly about passion and giving jewelry to those we love and then closed by suggesting that we use the event as an opportunity to diversify our investment portfolios by adding a few diamonds to the mix. At that moment, the audience paused with seeming unease—perhaps alluding to the state of the real estate markets and suggesting diamond retail therapy as the perfect solution to the situation was a bit uncouth?! Aware of the tension, or just keeping to schedule, the orchestra conductor quickly raised his baton to move the evening along—more song, more drinks and more dance.

The next morning I woke up to learn that while at Boucheron’s birthday party, terrorists had launched a vicious attack on some of Mumbai’s most celebrated venues—killing over 100 innocent bystanders. Upon arrival at the office my coworkers looked drained. Many are from Mumbai, and had spent the night alternating between watching the news in disbelief and calling loved ones to make sure they were safe. Saddened by the whole situation and feeling rather guilty for partying ignorantly the night before, I listened to my coworkers frame the evening’s events and tried to make sense of something that just seemed so senseless.

After talking for about an hour, one Indian coworker looked up and said, “Hey, in America, isn’t it Thanksgiving?” I responded—“Yes”—impressed that she thought to remember. We then launched into a discussion about how Thanksgiving is celebrated in the States and all agreed that Thanksgiving is one of the best holidays because its celebration transends the boundaries of race, religion and creed. Although we were sad, a discussion of what it means to be thankful lifted our spirits and helped us move forward with our day.

I don’t yet know what to make of the current world economic and geopolitical situation. The frame through which I see the events around me in Dubai and beyond is, to be honest, quite foggy. I suppose the best thing to do moving forward is to work hard, remain optimistic (yet grounded), spend and save thoughtfully and continue feeling the hope I wrote about in my last entry.

If I don’t speak to you before then, have a happy, healthy and hopefully prosperous new year!


PS Eid Mubarak!

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