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At Home in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

We had been traveling for over five months since we left home. We have never gone longer than six months without seeing our children and I was missing our babies!

We promised them before we started on our odyssey of traveling around the world that we would fly them to see us for holidays and special occasions if we didn’t make it home. Our son Ollie was set to celebrate his 21st birthday and that was definitely a special occasion. I was hoping that they would meet us somewhere, but I also knew that Ollie might want to spend this milestone birthday with his friends.

I called the kids before my trip to the Serengeti and asked if they would like to join us for a few weeks. For a birthday gift, I gave Ollie the option of flying him to see us or to see his friend in Japan. He chose us!

I then let him pick the place. He told me that it was his dream to spend his 21st birthday in Dubai. I encouraged him to think of Greece or Spain, Croatia, anywhere cooler. He was adamant about Dubai. He said that he has wanted to go to Dubai since seeing Tom Cruise on the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible.

I started searching for airfares and found great flights for all of us. I then did a little research on the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates is located in Western Asia at the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf. It borders Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and shares maritime borders with Qatar to the west and Iran to the north. Despite its location, the UAE is one of the safest countries in the world, it seems like the Switzerland of the Middle East.

It would be our first visit to Asia and a new passport stamp. Dubai it was!

No sooner had I booked the tickets and was online sending kids potential airbnb rentals, when Ol said he had a message from his friends Cheryl and Steve. Cheryl asked if we had planned on visiting Dubai during our travels.

Ol sent Cheryl a message telling her that we had booked tickets to Dubai. Cheryl was sorry that her family would not be there but offered us the use of her home. When she sent pictures of the family’s villa, we were stunned. It was absolutely beautiful. Their family would be back home in the states traveling and we could stay as long as we wanted. Their live-in housekeeper, Mary, would be there to make us feel at home. When I told the kids, they couldn’t believe it. We were all so excited.

Ol and I flew in one night before the kids. We landed in Dubai around noon after flying all night from Tanzania. We both agreed that the Dubai airport and customs office were the best we had ever encountered. It was all so beautiful and clean, and we sailed through customs. Officials were dressed in crisp white flowing Arabian garb and looked marvelous. We were made to feel welcome by everyone we encountered.

I knew that Dubai had a reputation for luxury, but I will still taken aback that all of the Uber’s at the airport were beautiful new Lexus vehicles.

As we drove to Cheryl’s home, we were dazzled by all of the modern steel and glass buildings. Dubai is a city of the future. When we saw the metro and all of the building going on, it reminded me of the “Jetson’s”.

I was surprised that I didn’t even notice the temperature. We quickly discovered that Dubai is like Mississippi in July and August. Only venture outside for a matter of minutes and the heat doesn’t seem so bad. We were whisked from building to vehicle with AC to another building with AC. Dubai will probably be the only place prepared for global warming as the buildings are connected with enclosed moving sidewalks that are all air conditioned!

When we reached our villa we were warmly greeted by Mary, the housekeeper. She instantly made us feel at home. She said that she was thankful for the company and gave us a tour of the home and served us refreshments.

After flying all night Ol and I settled into the master bedroom for a quick nap. When we awoke, we felt refreshed. The bed was like heaven! After several months in rural Africa, we were officially back in modern civilization. We had fast internet and UberEats! We were so excited that we didn’t know what to order first. We missed so many foods while in Africa, but especially Asian, Mexican, and good salads.

After eating, we ventured out into the city. We called Uber and were surprised that they were there within two minutes. I guess we were still in Hakuna Matata mode. The Uber dropped us off at the metro stop. We were headed to the largest mall in the world. We quickly discovered that the Dubai public transportation system is amazing. It was clean, fast, modern, and safe. It is the first time I have ever seen a metro first class section and a section reserved just for women and children.

Ol and I just walked around the mall in awe. It was fun to people watch. The mall was busy with sheiks and their families. We did manage to get Ollie a little happy for his birthday. We decided to catch a movie and save the mall attractions for Liv and Ollie’s visit.

The next day we stayed in and anxiously waited for the kids to arrive. They had a long flight. They were flying half way around the world. They had a direct flight from Ft. Lauderdale on Emirates Airlines to Dubai, but it was still about 24 hours of travel.

When their Uber pulled up to the villa it was all hugs and tears. I knew that they would be tired, but they didn’t look it. They were excited to get the birthday party started. I was the one that was exhausted from being up all night worrying about their flight!

Mary helped us quickly get them settled. They each had beautiful bedrooms with their own baths (Did I mention that Cheryl and Steve’s villa is incredible!). While we were visiting, we discovered that Mary had hung all of their clothes and turned down their beds. I could tell that at the end of ten days, our children were going to be truly spoiled.

I had pre-booked several things for Ollie’s birthday and a few other family excursions. I left a day for Liv and Ollie to spend time together, one day for both Ol and I to spend a day alone with each one of them.

Ollie and I planned to visit the gold markets of Dubai. On my day with Liv we would have a traditional spa day. Ol planned on taking Ollie to Ferrari World to race cars and Liv sky diving over the famous Palm. He was obviously still high on his Kilimanjaro adrenaline!

The day after Ollie and Liv arrived was Ollie’s 21st birthday. We let the kids sleep in and then hung out at the villa until the afternoon. We booked a sunset cruise on a yacht from Dubai’s marina for Ollie’s birthday dinner. It was hot, but wonderful. We had a traditional dinner and enjoyed all of the beautiful buildings and Dubai’s skyline in lights.

When we got back to the harbor, we had to hurry for our late night trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The views were stunning. For a 21st birthday celebration it wasn’t too shabby. Ollie agreed that Dubai lived up to the hype.

The next day we planned that Ollie would spend the day with his sister, Liv. What he didn’t know was how awesome his big sister is and how great his birthday present was. With our help Liv rented a 2018 Ferrari for Ollie for 24 hours. The car was delivered to the house, and when Ollie woke up, we blindfolded him and took him out to the driveway. His reaction, was priceless. In between him jumping up and down and kissing everyone, I kept telling him over and over that it’s just a rental. I wanted to make sure that he knew that the car was his for only 24 hours. He was ecstatic. This was definitely an Instagram Birthday!

After the guy who delivered the car left, we realized that we didn’t get any instructions. We didn’t even know how to start the car! After twenty futile minutes I decided to call the driver back. It was then that he realized that we didn’t have the keys! I guess we were all too excited about watching Ollie’s reaction.

After we got the keys Ollie took his mom for her first ride in a Ferrari. Why have I been driving a Prius for ten years? Let's just say that I am changing my Christmas list! I was raised on race cars and I didn’t realize how much I missed them. Then, Liv and Ollie were off. We were surprised when they met us later in the evening at a restaurant at the Marina. They had a great day. Liv is officially the best sister in the world!

When Ol and I woke up the next day, we were surprised to find Liv and Ollie out and about. They were determined to get the full use of their 24 hours. Before we had to pry the keys from Ollie’s hands he took Mary and Ol on a short drive about town.

We booked a desert excursion in the afternoon, so we stayed home and enjoyed the pool. Ollie was still in shock over Liv’s present and she was enjoying being held in such high esteem.

Our desert guide picked us up at 3:00 for our 4X4 dune safari. We tried but couldn’t get Mary to join us. Our guide was great. We squealed as we raced up and down the dunes. When he stopped in the middle of the desert both Liv and Ollie did a little sand boarding. They were naturals. I was surprised that Liv said that wiping out was on her bucket list. She told us all to video her, but when she got to the bottom of the dune, we all stopped filming. She jumped off at the last second and had a major wipe out. She was exuberant until she found out that we had no pictures!

We spent the rest of the evening in the desert in native dress (we lasted 5 minutes), riding camels, watching belly dancers, and smoking hookahs. It was hot fun!

The next day we decided to spend the day together. We decided we really didn’t want to be apart. After sleeping in and lounging around we took the metro to the mall. We saw the largest television in the world, watched sharks swim at the aquarium, and watched people snow ski indoors. We window shopped and ate. It was another perfect day.

The next day we had a tour to Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. We wanted to see the Louvre and the Sheik Zayed Mosque. It was a small group tour and we were joined by a young woman from Switzerland who was traveling by herself.

It was a lovely day. Liv and I wore long skirts and dressed conservatively so we wouldn’t have to wear the hot black mosque clothes. When our guide saw us, he was a little skeptical that our white clothes would pass inspection. He provided new garments that he bought for us.

When we arrived at the mosque, we were told that our clothes weren’t conservative enough, despite scarves and long dresses! So Liv and I donned the black garments over our clothes. We should have changed out of our clothes to be cooler. Again, it was hot but worth it. The mosque provides clothing and a nice changing room if you aren't dressed properly. The mosque is incredibly beautiful and is worth donning some extra clothes to visit.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the world. It was designed to show the unique interactions between Islam and other world cultures. It was designed by British, Italian and Emirate architects to incorporate architectural styles from different Muslim civilizations and celebrate cultural diversity. The design inspiration was borrowed from Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and Pakistan.

The result is a vast space that is both glistening and peaceful. It truly is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever visited. The marble stone work of flowers made of different marbles and the columns inlaid with precious stones were mesmerizing! The iconic prayer hall has the largest chandelier and the largest hand made wool carpet in the world. The Mosque invites tourists and celebrants to visit. We were made to feel very welcome.

After our tour we were taken to Abu Dhabi’s most luxurious hotel, the seven star Emirates Palace. The staff to guest ratio is 3 to1. The government owned hotel cost several billion dollars to build. When we arrived, we were swept upwards into an Arabian fantasy, through a beautiful garden towards the pink palace.

The theme of gold is everywhere, from the lobby with its onion dome to the furnishings. Gold is why we were there. We were there for the hotels famous gold lattes and gold covered ice cream. We indulged in the decadence and had fun doing it!

Sheiks and smartly dressed people were tucked into the restaurants corners. Glass cases showing stunning jewels for sale were spaced throughout the lobby. I can see why guests have given the hotel a seven star rating even though the highest rating for a hotel is five stars.

Despite its opulence, I was surprised to learn that the hotel is quite affordable. The hotel has some private areas reserved for the Royal family, but it seems like all guests are treated like royalty. On check-in ladies are presented with white bouquets, and every room features silk brocade sofas, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, marble steps up to raised marble bathtub, and a personal butler. A standard room costs only $440 a night.

After we were full of gold, we were ready for our next adventure, the Louve Abu Dhabi. Opened in 2017, the new museum is an architectural masterpiece. The museum’s purpose is to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western Art.

Located on Saadiyat Island the museum is designed as a “seemingly floating dome structure”; its web-patterned dome allows the sun to filter through. The overall effect is to “represent rays of sunlight passing through date date palm fronds in an oasis”.

Surrounded by light turquoise tidal pools, the museum is given the illusion that it is afloat in the sea. The entire modern campus is as stunning as its exhibits. We were all in awe.

The next day we were thankful to spend a day at home just watching Netflix and hanging out as a family. I thought that I might cook some of the kids favorites, but found UberEats too convenient. I still can’t believe I don’t miss cooking.

On our last day, Ollie and I decided to venture to Old Dubai to visit the Gold Souks. We couldn’t entice Liv and Ol to join us. They were happy to just hang out. They decided in going to see the new Spiderman movie at the mall. I don’t know what happened to all of our elaborate plans of spas and sky diving. I think that we were just worn out!

Old Dubai is known as the heart and soul of the city. It felt more like the cities of Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco that we had visited with its traditional markets and authentic food. We didn’t have much of a chance to admire the restored old gypsum and coral buildings because we were blinded by all of the gold! This isn’t 14 karat, or even 18 karat, but 22 and 24 karat made into everything imaginable. There is a huge selection of jewelry made from gold, silver, diamonds, and precious stones lining hundreds of the shops windows.

The Gold Souk is Dubai’s most famous and visited souk. As soon as we were out of our black Lexus Uber, we were mobbed with handlers. Everyone wanted to take us to their shop. I could see that Ollie was overwhelmed. I told him that this is why his dad didn’t want to come. He had to laugh. Ol will climb a mountain but is afraid to face vendors selling merchandise in the souks!

We ended up following one guy through the labyrinth of shops. We had one mission. Getting Ol’s dad a piece of gold. The shop we were in was small, but the safe was big. Ollie and I were both surprised when we were asked if we would like to hold a gold bar. The safe was opened and Ollie was holding a bar of gold that cost more than the majority of homes in the U.S.

The majority of the gold in the world comes through Dubai. We could buy it duty free. It was explained to us why the jewelry and belts were all made in pure gold, despite it being so soft. People mainly from India will come buy gold, and then to avoid import duties back in their home country they wear it as jewelry. We were told that we could make as much as ten percent on each transaction. We decided against being gold mules and spent the rest of the afternoon shopping. At the end of the day, Ollie said that this was by far the best birthday and family vacation.

Our last day was spent snuggling, and I was surprised that there were more than a few tears. It was a great visit, but it was short. Our usual time together of three weeks together is generally enough time for us all to get on each others nerves. Which makes it easier to say goodbye. This visit of ten days was just too short and we weren't ready to part.

The kids also had a hard time saying goodbye to Mary. If they could have taken her home they would have.

The kids flew out first. After they left Ol and I spent the afternoon trying to decide where we would go next. We pulled up flights and after looking at prices, we settled on a city we had yet to visit, Barcelona. We have spent lots of time in Spain, but had never been to Barcelona. We would be leaving for the airport just as the kids would be getting home.

Visiting with our children, Mary’s care, and Cheryl and Steve’s beautiful home was a much needed vacation from our travels. We were now well rested (but unfortunately totally spoiled) and ready to begin our journey again. All we had planned was the next two weeks in Barcelona. That would be enough time to figure out where we would venture next.

I had never thought of visiting the United Arab Emirates, but now so thankful that we had the opportunity. And, I have to send out a very special thank you to Cheryl, Steve, and Mary for giving us a home away from home!

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