A trip to Abu Dhabi

Whew! I have one more day of classes, before the end of term. The last couple of weeks have been very busy at work and away from work. I know I have been starting the last few blogs this way, but I am actually really surprised how little time I have had lately. The good news is that I have finalized the last of the course assignments. I hope this means that I will have more time for writing between now and the end of December when I leave.

Last Thursday I headed back to the Gold Souq with Karuna. The purchase of a nice watch seems to have started me on a path to a bit of a jewelry obsession. I needed to buy a chain to go with the amber pendant that Karuna gave me a month ago. So for the third time, we went to the silver shop in the Souq. As we left, Karuna told me that she needed a new purse, because the zipper on the one she had was broken. For anyone who has been to the souq, you know that there are dozens of men walking up and down the alleyways offering Louis Vitton and Gucci purses for very low prices. (There are also “incredible deals” on Rolex watches offered to the men.) Karuna blew off the first couple of guys that approached us, but told one of them that she wanted to see some bags after we finished shopping at the silver shop.

Karuna was looking for a gift for her daughter for Christmas, and I was searching for a simple chain. As I was looking, Karuna spotted a chain that would not work for the pendant, but was very pretty. She insisted that I try it on. I did really like it, but had no idea how much it cost, and that really wasn’t what I planned to purchase. I did find a chain that I liked for the pendant and asked for a price. The merchant took both chains together and weighed them. As usual, I let Karuna do the bargaining. There actually wasn’t much haggling this time; I think the merchant remembered Karuna from our previous visits and knew she wouldn’t budge on her price. I walked out of the store with the two chains for 200 dirhams.

Our next stop was to find a purse for Karuna. If you have seen the movie “Sex in the City II” you may remember that the “girls” took a trip to Abu Dhabi. At one point they were warned not to “go upstairs” when they went shopping in the souqs of the city. (By the way, if you have not seen the movie Sex in the City II, congratulations, you made an excellent choice. Unfortunately, I will never get those two hours back.) This warning from the movie was going through my head as we followed the purse salesman through a few narrow alleys on the way to the purse shop “upstairs”, but I had faith that I was safe with Karuna. We climbed three flights of stairs to get to the shop. The stairwell smelled of urine, and there was liquid evidence on the floor. The “shop” itself was behind a steel door, and was quite bright and clean. It was basically a small office with shelves on every wall, filled with knock-off purses, with brand names like Louis Vitton, Marc Jacobs, and Gucci. I noticed two video monitors above the door showing camera views of the stairwell outside. I had no interest in a purse, so I just waited for Karuna to find something she liked. She wasn’t really impressed with the choices, but settled on a Gucci bag. She offered 70 dirhams for the purse, and was given a counter-offer in another language (possibly Hindi). She seemed insulted by the counter-offer and tried to leave the shop, but was unable to open the door when she pulled on it. A thought quickly flashed through my head that we were not going to be let out until we bought something. After fumbling around a bit, Karuna found a button on the door that released the lock. At about this time another couple came in looking for luggage. The shopkeeper eventually acquiesced, and sold the bag to Karuna for 70 dirhams. We left safely, and headed for dinner. After some good, and not too spicy Indian food, we returned home.

On Saturday, several of the faculty were scheduled to head to Abu Dhabi for the day. I had arranged to have Mohammed, the university’s driver, take a group in our bus to the neighbouring Emirate. At one point it looked like the bus would be full with 14 people. But by Saturday morning there were 10 of us who left the hotel at 7:45 a.m.: Mohammed, my colleague Giovanni and his daughter Cristina, his mother-in-law and father-in-law (who only spoke Italian), my colleague Mazda and his father and brother who were visiting for a few days, my colleague Zoran, and me. I had asked people what they wanted to do when we were in Abu Dhabi, but nobody responded with anything in particular. I knew that I wanted to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque,Grand Mosque - Abu Dhabi but there was nothing else that was a priority for me.

About 15 minutes outside of Abu Dhabi, towards Dubai is Yas Island. This is the home of the Abu Dhabi, F1 racetrack, and an indoor amusement park called Ferrari World. I decided that I had seen enough cultural sites in Dubai and in Sri Lanka, so I wanted to spend the morning at the mosque, and the afternoon at Ferrari World. I came up with a plan where people had a choice to spend the afternoon around the Emirates Palace Hotel, Heritage Village, and Corniche (a promenade along the waterfront) area of the city, or go to Ferrari World. Mohammed would take those people who wanted to stay in the city at the Emirates Palace Hotel, and then take those who wanted to go to Ferrari World to Yas Island. Then he would go back to the city and spend the afternoon there, and pick up the people at Ferrari World on the way back to Dubai. I found out that the TAs at the university were planning there own trip to Abu Dhabi the same weekend, and that they were going to be at Ferrari World on Saturday afternoon. So, even if I was the only person who wanted to spend the afternoon at the amusement park, I wouldn’t be alone.

We arrived at the Grand Mosque just after 9:00 a.m. The first tours of the day occurred at 10:00 a.m., so we were quite early. I felt a bit badly that we had almost an hour to wait for the tours to start, but in picking the departure time I knew I didn’t want to be rushing. As it turns out, I was very happy we arrived when we did. We got a great parking spot, and had a chance to look around and take lots of pictures before it got crowded with people. The picture taking started as soon as we got out of the bus in the parking lot. While we were switching up who was taking the pictures and who was posing, a security guard rushed over to us. He waived at Giovanni’s mother-in-law and daughter and said that they were not allowed to pose in front of the mosque unless they were wearing an abaya. Giovanni’s mother-in-law pulled out a scarf to cover her head, but that was not good enough – women had to be wearing an abaya to be in a picture at the mosque. I knew that we were going to need to wear an abaya once we entered the mosque, but I was surprised that it was required outside. I took a couple of pictures of the men in the group with the mosque in the background,Grand Mosque men only and then Cristina, her grandmother, and I went to get proper attire which is supplied by the mosque.

The three of us were given an abaya and a shayla (headcovering). The abaya had an image of the mosque embroidered on the sleeve. I have not learned the secret of how to keep the shayla covering my head. I tried several different arrangements, but it kept slipping off as I wore it all morning. I kept adjusting it, but it was quite annoying. Wearing the abaya and the shayla made me a bit warm, but I was quite happy to respect the dress code of the mosque. After the three of us were dressed appropriately, it was time to take pictures of the women.

Grand Mosque women in abayasI spend the next 40 minutes wandering around inside and outside taking pictures and marveling at the craftsmanship of the mosque. If you have a chance to visit the U.A.E., going to Abu Dhabi just to see the Grand Mosque is worth the trip. It is spectacular. At 10:00 a.m. I joined one of the many tours that started in the courtyard. By this time there were hundreds of people walking around inside and outside. During the tour we were given some information about Islam, but most of the tour focused on the features of the mosque. It was constructed from 1996 through 2007. Many cultures are represented in the artisan features. For example the chandeliers, which are amazing themselves, were created in Germany, and the carpet was made in Iran.

Grand Mosque chandelier

Designed to look like an upside down palm tree - it weighs over 9 tonnes.

One of the fascinating features I learned about during the tour was that the carpet, which is 5700 square metres is all one piece. The prayer lines which appear to be raised, are actually the result of shaving the carpet between the lines. Also, in the women’s prayer rooms, the pattern that appears on the carpet, also appears in relief on the ceiling. The columns, the floors, the courtyard, the doors, the windows, the prayer clocks, all have beautiful artistic features. The Grand Mosque must be one of the most impressive architectural achievements in the world. It certainly would be near, or at the top of the list of man-made structures that I have seen.

After the tour, we met back at the bus and headed on to the Emirates Palace Hotel. This is the “Burj Al Arab” of Abu Dhabi. Although not as impressive as the Grand Mosque, the Emirates Palace Hotel is also beautiful. Emirates Palace HotelUnlike the Burj Al Arab, you are allowed inside without being a guest or having a reservation for dinner. As it turns out I was the only person from the group who was interested in going to Ferarri World. I did feel a bit guilty making Mohammed drive just one person to Yas Island, but I also was feeling a bit like I deserved to be selfish, since nobody else had expressed an opinion about what to do in Abu Dhabi. I ran inside the Emirates Palace and took a few pictures. I took a few more pictures outside, and then jumped in the bus.

It took about a half an hour to get to Ferrari World. I called Medhat who is a staff member at the university who had traveled with the TAs to Abu Dhabi the night before. I let him know that I was on my way and that I would call again after I got inside. By the time I had bought my ticket I was getting quite hungry for lunch. I got in touch with Medhat and arranged to meet him and the TAs (Yen, Curtis, Ragu, and Paul) at one of the restaurants inside. All of the restaurants served Italian food. I had a very nice salad, and a slice of pizza, along with a pistachio custard in a chocolate cup for dessert. Over lunch the TAs told me that they had already been on all of the rides in the park. Ferrari World is mostly indoors, except for two roller coasters and a “drop tower”, which are rides that you enter from the inside, but go outside for the ride itself. I asked them if it was worth going on the rides a second time, and they said that they were definitely interested in riding the roller coasters again.

After we finished lunch the TAs took me to ride “Formula Rossa” which is “the fastest roller coaster on the planet”. As we were waiting for our turn, it occurred to me that I had not ridden a roller coaster in over 15 years. As I got a bit nervous standing in line, and was thinking that it might not have been a good idea to ride this roller coaster right after eating a fairly big lunch. The closer I got to getting on the ride, the more anxious I became. There were warnings about keeping your head back against the headrest because of the g-forces, and you were required to wear goggles. I noticed some head coverings hanging beside the track. I asked Yen what they were for, and she told me that they were for the women who were wearing head scarfs, to avoid anything loose from flying about during the ride.

Formula Rossa roller coasterIf you have any plans to go to Ferrari World and ride this roller coaster, you may not want to read this paragraph so you can be more surprised by the ride. By the time I did get to the front of the line I was really questioning if this was a good idea. To make matters worse, the safety bars reset three times while we were sitting there waiting for the ride to start. I assumed that the ride would begin, as all roller coasters I have ever ridden begin, by slowly climbing a big hill, and the fast part of it would come as the roller coaster rolled down the first hill. That is not what happens on this ride; the acceleration stars immediately – like you are being shot out of a gun. You accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in 2 seconds, and reach a maximum speed of 240 km within the first five seconds.

I was terrified during entire ride. The entire time we were outside, I didn’t see anything except the track in front of me. I had a death grip on the safety bar, like that would somehow save me if something went wrong. The ride does not have any loops, but it does have some very severe turns and at times your body is parallel to the ground. I was literally telling myself that I was not going to die on this roller coaster. During the minute and a half it lasted, I needed constant internal reassurance that the engineers had done a good job in constructing this roller coaster and that I was going to make it to the end in one piece. After I disembarked from the ride I was visibly shaking for about five minutes afterwards. The TAs all told me that I had to try it again in the front seat – I told them that they were crazy. I have never been more scared in an adventure situation in my life.

The next stop was the other roller coaster which was at the opposite end of the building. The Fiorano GT Challenge has two sets of cars running along tracks that cross over and under each other. The cars start at the same time, and you “race” to the finish. The outcome is random, so Medhat and Curtis went on one track and the rest of us went on the other. After the sheer terror of Formula Rossa, this roller coaster was a piece of cake. It was fun “racing” to the finish. There was hardly anyone in line, so after the first run, we made our way back for a second race. I was in the winning car both times, and had bragging rights for the rest of the day over Medhat and Curtis.

At 3:00 p.m. there was a show called La Gara which is somewhere between a good half time show at a Raptors game and Cirque du Soleil. There was some impressive acrobatics. One section had the performers creating music with tools and materials that would be used in a racing pit – things like riveters and tires. Another interesting section had the performers twirling batons with LED lights. As they spun the batons, the lights would be switched to form different patterns like arrows, and checkered flags. At one point you could see the word Ferrari appear as the batons were quickly being rotated.

After the show we headed to the racing simulators. Unfortunately, to ride in the simulators you needed to get a timed ticket. By the time we got there, the earliest time we could get was 6:20. I had made arrangements with Mohammed and the rest of the group to be picked up at 5:30. I wasn’t going to be able to ride in the simulator, and I was disappointed. As it turns out because of miscommunication about how we would work out changing plans, I didn’t get picked up until 6:30. Unfortunately, by the time I found this out, I had already left the park area.

Ferrari World carI spent the rest of the afternoon with the TAs looking at displays of the cars and the history of Ferrari. There was one ride where you watched a movie in a theatre that had moving seats. It was a little fantasy film about a boy who dreamed of working for Ferrari and ended up riding with Fernando Alonso in a racecar. Every once in a while you were actually sprayed with water as the car moved through puddles on the screen. There was another ride that had you moving through a series of pictures and mini movies as a narrator talked about the history of Ferrari and its drivers. There were a few more exhibits that I didn’t get a chance to see, but I think I got most of the best the park had to offer. Before I left, I stopped by the Ferrari Store, looking for a Christmas gift for my brother-in-law, and or my young nephews. I expected the items to be overpriced, but all the prices were outrageous. There was a kid’s shirt that would fit a three year old that cost over $60 Canadian. A small child’s backpack was priced at over $100 Canadian. I just couldn’t justify buying anything at those prices (sorry Tim).

After leaving the TAs at Ferarri World, I was eventually picked up by Mohammed and the rest of the group. During the trip back to Dubai I talked about my adventures in Ferrari World, and got a report on what the others did in Abu Dhabi. They spent most of the time on the beach and walking along the Corniche; they didn’t end up going to the Heritage Village. Overall everyone seemed happy with the trip, and I had a great day myself.

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