Saturday, April 17, 2021

Dubai, a Delightful Drop In

This was the vacation I didn't know that I needed. Of course there were some stressful moments. It was expensive and it was hot, but it was fun, friendly, it felt safe, and in some ways it felt homey. 

I'll start with some overall impressions of Dubai:

  • So much construction! It's a new city (the downtown/Business Bay Area that we were staying in was only established in 2003) and it's still being built up. While noticeable from the Airbnb's patio, it was very obvious when seen from the Burj Khalifa observation decks.
  • Hot & humid. While there, the temperature rarely dropped below 30C (~86F) and humidity stayed in the 40-50% range. We had access to a pool in our building, and most of the activities we did were either inside or in the evening, but I kept a sweat towel with me at all times.
  • Very manicured. Dubai has the goal of being a "green city," which does not mean that they are focused on environmentalism. It's actually quite the opposite–they want to have tons of parks and green space, despite being a desert with average temperatures above 100F/40C multiple months of the year. My friends and I joked that they'll soon be constructing a giant bubble to surround the city in air-conditioning. Nonetheless, it reminded me of living in Bellevue, WA, where city parks are always landscaped and litter is rare.
  • Orderly. This was actually my favorite thing and made me consider moving to UAE. Rules and laws seemed to be followed and lines were (almost) always respected. My friend's partner (who had previously lived in Dubai for four years prior to moving there again in 2021) said that it was because of a fear of the prison system in UAE, but I think it more likely reflects the wealth of the country and the Islamic values. 
  • Daily prayers. Speaking of Islam, the five daily prayers are announced by a melodic voice and broadcast from each mosque to the surrounding neighborhoods. Each session is only about two minutes and sounds very peaceful and meditative. 
  • Culturally diverse. Only ~10% of Dubai's residents are Emiratis, everyone else is an expat. Because of that, everything operates in English (even street signs) and it's quite nice to know I won't get into an issue because I can't speak the local language. 
  • Service culture. I was greeted with "ma'am" and "madam" more than a few times, and I felt very catered towards. Maybe there is an underlying caste system or racism that I wasn't aware about, but I think it has more to do with the orderly nature of the culture and people being overall generous and polite. 
You'll notice I didn't put "expensive" on the list. That's because I expected it to be pricey, and while it was, it wasn't outrageous. Everything we did and every place we ate were priced pretty comparably to other places I've been (such as Seattle and London). 

But now to the fun stuff! We had a full itinerary and I liked everything we did. Some things that made it onto the agenda were:

Time at the Beach: We walked around a fancy private beach for a bit our first day (even though we kind of snuck in) and then also spent some hours lounging and swimming at one of the public beaches, which was also very nice. The Persian Gulf has warm, blue water, and the beaches (even the public ones) are sandy and clean and include free public restrooms, changing rooms, and showers. When we didn't want to pay for a taxi to drive us 20 minutes to the beach we also had access to a pool in our building. 
The Burj Al Arab, which is one of the tallest and most high-end hotels in the world. 

Jumeriah Mosque: This was one of my top things to see, since I like to experience the local culture when I visit a new place. Jumeriah Mosque opens their doors to visitors every day for a mosque tour and presentation on Islam. We were taught about the five pillars of Islam, the significance of Ramadan (which started while we were visiting), and we watched as someone demonstrated the daily prayers. The employees at the mosque were welcoming and encouraged us to ask any questions we liked. They live up to their motto 'open doors, open minds.'
There are nearly 1500 mosques in Dubai, most of which have these characteristic minarets (the steeple-like towers). 

Burj Khalifa: The tallest tower in the world is the first 'mega building' (meaning over 600 meters). There are 154 floors (plus some for maintenance purposes) that stretch up to a total height of nearly 830 meters. Our tickets took us on the fastest elevator in the world up to the 124th floor, which had an outdoor observation deck. We then took the stairs up to floor 125 for 360-degree views in which we could pin-point our building, our friend's apartment complex, and some other notable landmarks. 
The building is so tall that it's hard to capture the full structure in a regular-sized photo. 

Views from the top show the bright blue waters of the Dubai Fountain, the dark colors of Dubai Creek, the numbers towers of Dubai's Business Bay, and the sandy beige of undeveloped land. 

Safari: Taking a trip into the desert is one of the top recommended things to do, but I was a little disinterested at first, but it was fun. Our trip included a 45 minute drive to the desert, where we did 20 minutes of dune bashing, then were brought to the desert camp. At camp we were given the options to have henna done, ride camels, and take sunset photos in the dunes. As the evening progressed, we were treated to a buffet dinner paired with performances by a fire dancer and tanoura skirt twirling. 
Partway through the dune bashing our driver let us get out to take pictures. You have to do a jumping photo when out in sand dunes!

Ski Dubai: What a wild ride! My friend rented skis and I started off on a snowboard for our two-hour tickets to the indoor ski resort. In addition to the one chairlift (which has access to a black slope) there is a poma lift (although it doesn't give you any additional access), plus two magic carpets for the bunny slope areas. Two hours was plenty: I was beat up after 1.25 hours of snowboarding and then promptly got bored once I switched to skis for the last half hour. But, I'm glad I got at least a little bit of skiing in this year. 
For the non-skiers, there are also a variety of slides, sleds, and zip lines to keep you entertained. 

Dubai Fountain Show: 13 times a day the fountain comes alive with an elaborately choreographed dance. The song and dance change each performance, and we managed to catch four of them during our trip. It is the world's biggest water fountain, made even more impressive by the towering Burj Khalifa in the background. 
Our first visit to the fountain was my favorite. It was a beautiful instrumental French song, which paired with the water dance for a magical and emotional experience.

On our last night, we ate dinner on the terrace of a very fancy restaurant which gave us a great view. During the shows Burj Khalifa also lights up (in this photo with the Islamic moon symbol, which was very common during Ramadan). 

Old Dubai: In an attempt for more 'cultural time' I dragged my friend along to Old Dubai, but I didn't have much guidance other than that. We ended up walking through the Spice Souk and Gold Souk, but it was overwhelming having all of the vendors walk up to us trying to get us to touch, smell, and of course, buy, their products. It was probably magnified a bit by the fact that Christina and I were some of the only tourists, so we attracted the attention of every vendor. After a bit, we took a water taxi (which only cost ~0.50 USD) to the other side of Dubai Creek. There we found a more peaceful (but also newer) part of Old Town to wander through. 

The spice vendors were eager to walk up to us and ask "do you know what this spice is?" I was actually curious to know about some of them, but I wasn't willing to get sucked into their sales pitch. 

Dinner Cruise: We took an evening cruise along Dubai Creek. I wasn't sure what it would include, since it wasn't with the original company I wanted to book with, plus we were attending during Ramadan, which creates some restrictions. It ended up being very nice. We enjoyed a buffet dinner as we floated among some of the Dubai architectural feats and listened to Arab covers to popular American music. 
The cruise set out around 19:00, but dinner wasn't served until after sunset, in accordance with the Ramadan fasting practices. 

Wild Wadi Waterpark: This was my favorite day of the trip! The park is themed after an Arabian fairy tale and has a good mix of fun and thrill. It took us a while to find the starting point for any slides, but once we got the lay of the land we stayed busy buzzing around the park all day. My two favorite rides were bit raft-style ones, but neither were the most notable parts of the park. Before this, I had never heard of an uphill water slide before! You would nestle into a tube that then got pushed up a roller coaster-like ride, and then you could slide down a variety of routes. At the end you'd be split out into the lazy river and could stay in your tube as long as you want. 
There most extreme slide at the park was Jumeirah Sceirah, in which the floor drops out from under you to send you zooming down a 6-second zipper. You can see this slide's tower in the background of this photo. 

The Food: Everything you could possibly want restaurant-wise can be found in Dubai. We had local Arab food for one meal, but it was easier to find American-style chains, like Rainforest Cafe and Joe's Crab Shack, than to find a locals only-type place. The thing that really one me over, though, were these baby foods branded "For Aisha."

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Covid-PCR Test

Last week on the phone, Dad recommended that Cameron and explore the Romanian Carpathian Mountains, or at least the Polish mountains. He suggested we just camp out in the wilderness or sleep in our car, to which I tried to explain through my frustration that we can't! Yes, I'm flying to Dubai tomorrow, but that took considerable coordination and new challenges keep coming up (to be discussed shortly). Non-necessary travel within Europe is virtually nonexistent right now, and all accommodations in Poland are closed. Poland does not have any wilderness camping, and I am not willing to bend the rules right now just to have an uncomfortable night of sleeping in my car.

Just about everyone I know in the US has gotten at least their first vaccine shot, and both of my parents have been fully vaccinated for a few weeks (months?) now. They visited my sister (also vaccinated) in Colorado last month, and have started regularly socializing with friends and eating out at restaurants. I'm sure it's easy for Dad to forget that, even though he has these newfound freedoms, Europe is currently smack-dab in the middle of its third wave. 

In Poland, we haven't been able to sit down at a restaurant since October, and shops, schools, hotels, and restaurants seem are constantly in flux on whether they are allowed to be open or not. There are quite a few people whom I see regularly but I don't know what the bottom half of their face looks like. I bought tickets to an (outdoor) chocolate festival and had mentally committed to making a hair appointment, only to be informed the next day that both of those things would not be permitted for the foreseeable future. 

It's fine. The peak so far this month was over 420,000 active cases in Poland, 35,000 of which were new that day. That seems like a lot, but it's pretty much par for the course these days. On the plus side,  I like my growing mask collection. I probably wouldn't have written on this particular topic (again), except that I had my first COVID-PCR test yesterday. 

It was an in-person test, but I had to order it online. I selected the place closest to my flat (rather than a drive up location) and paid nearly 400 PLN for a voucher, good for the next three months. I really hoped that I would be able to make an appointment for a specific time, but alas it was up to me to decide when I wanted to show up.

My flight to Dubai leaves at 12:35 tomorrow, and I needed to have by PCR test within 72 hours of the departure time. Since it takes 24-36 hours for the test results to come in, and since the testing spot was only open from 8:00-13:00, it only made sense to go on Wednesday morning. Even though I arrived at 7:35, the line was already 20-people deep. 

I expected this, and felt pretty confident that they would get through the line quickly enough that I would be back home before my 9:30 Polish class. It was a little cold, and periodically snowing, but people were (mostly) keeping a reasonable distance from each other, plus my friend was there, too. Right at 8:00, the line lurched forward as four people were let inside. Things seemed to be moving smoothly and rationally, until they weren't.

Rather than letting the next batch of four into the building based on who was first in line, the hazmat-suited medical worker came out onto the street and said asked if anyone was waiting for a particular type of appointment. A rush of people left their original spots in line to identify themselves as 'the special ones.' I didn't understand enough of what was said to know whether or not I was 'special,' but I didn't hear the letters "PCR" so I thought it was correct for my friend and I to stay put. 

That cycle of four people from the 'true' line and then four 'special' people continued the whole time we were waiting, but I didn't figure out the pattern until we were practically at the door. I wasn't the only one who wasn't getting it, and every time the employee came outside the line turned more and more into a blog, with people trying to finagle their way into entering the building sooner. My friend whispered to me, that it seemed like a bazar way of prioritizing the Polish speakers, since it was clear that the majority of people around us who were not volunteering themselves as 'special' patients were also foreigners. 

Finally, around 9:10, my friend and I rode the wave into the building. There were four seats in the lobby, which we sat down in after getting a pump of the door-side hand sanitizer. It was clear that there were multiple testing rooms, but only the one nearest the front door was being used.

They kept the door to the testing room open, so while waiting I could see another hazmatted medical worker disinfecting the patient seat and tinkering with vials, while the other woman (the one who regularly came outside seeking the 'specials') sat behind a computer screen and handled the paperwork. That door remained open, even after they called in the patients, so I got to watch the process of a young guy going in, handing over his ID, and then being directed to the patient chair.

I didn't see the test itself, since the doctor placed herself between the patient and my line of sight, but I got a gist of the protocol. Next, I was called in, and I handed over my voucher number, ID, and shared by address and phone number. While my information was jotted down, I could see that the room wasn't particularly interesting, but was filled with organized stacks of plastic tubes, boxes of gloves, small vials, and other medical gear. 

I sat in the chair, and the doctor stood in the same spot as she did with the last patient. She directed me to sit with my head fully tilted up, and then she pulled down my mast to just below my nostrils. As she stuck the test stick (I don't know the proper word for that) down my right nostril, I realized I had been breathing through my nose and now had to figure out if I should just hold my breath or attempt to breathe through my mouth. The swab was out before I could decide, and I'm not sure if it would have made a difference breathing through my mouth, since it felt like the stick went down into my throat. 

As anyone who has been tested before can probably attest to, it didn't hurt, but it was uncomfortable. The strange tickling sensation stayed with me for at least ten minutes, as did a slight watering in my eyes. Before walking out of the room, I was given a card with a website that I could log into 24 hours from then to find my results. Easy-peasy. 

I didn't quite make it to my Polish class on time, but I was only late by about five minutes. When I checked the next morning (today) my test results were there, and I enjoyed a minute of feeling like things were going smoothly. Then I realized, the signed results form was only in Polish, and only English results were valid for traveling to Dubai. 

Oh boy. I suppose I just assumed that we would get dual lingual forms, since neither my friend nor I had seen anything otherwise. Well, what to do? I spent the morning seeing if I could use Google Translate to create a passable-looking English document, but of course it turned out really whack. Even if I managed to make a reasonable looking 'forged' certificate, there's no way I would be darning enough to actually present it to an Emiratis customs officer. 

Luckily, I found a place that could do a same-day sworn translation for 180 PLN each (ugh, another $50 to this already expensive trip!) and there was a place that could print out copies of the Polish certificate (and my janky English translation ones...just in case) for a few złoty, so things seem to be back on track. In my superstition mind, this means one of two things: either our flight will be canceled last-minute, or we will have already gotten through all of the hiccups and will now have a stress-free trip from here on out. Fingers crossed for the latter! 

The slightly unnerving image you see when you (finally) are let into the building). 

You can see that everyone outside starts to disregard the social distancing rules once they get close to the door. 

And since I don't have any other interesting Covid-related photos, I figured I'd also share a few pictures from our Easter:

Cameron woke up, thinking it would be a normal low-key Sunday morning, until he saw a lady sticking out of the couch cushions. Yes, once again, I made him go hunting for Easter candy. 

I think Cameron is looking forward to me being gone for a week, so he doesn't have to put up with this sort of shenanigans. 

I also attempted to make treat-filled chocolate 'eggs.' I didn't quite temper the chocolate correctly, and they didn't turn out very egg-shaped, but they were fun!

Cheese fondue is starting to become our Easter dinner tradition. 

Easter Monday is a national holiday, so Cameron and I enjoyed his day off with a walk through the Wolski Forest. 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Legend of Lajkonik

Happy Easter!

Normally holidays make a good blog topic, but I re-read last year's Easter contribution (Easter in Poland) and I'm pretty pleased with it still. If you didn't get a chance before, I recommend giving it a read to learn about the Polish Easter traditions. 

This week, I want to introduce you to a Krakow-specific tradition–the legend of Lajkonik! 

When I first arrived in Krakow, I saw the symbol of Lajkonik (the silhouette of a bearded man in a pointy hat riding a horse) everywhere: the bus seat upholstery, bakery logos, and bike racks. I didn't know what it was, and in my mind just assumed it must be some historical king. Though he may be kingly, he's actually remembered as a valiant trickers. The pointed hat, paired with colorful oriental attire, is characteristic of Krakow's 13th century enemies, the Tartars. The horse, is a wooden hobby horse, a humorous fill-in for the real thing, which has become more iconic than the true story. 

Through the 13th century, there were multiple Mongol invasions of Krakow. The main one was in 1241, and led to a lot of destruction, but is said to have only lasted 10 days. Lajkonik's story comes later, in 1287, during the third Mongol invasion of Poland. The Mongol army joined forces with Turkic troops and the two planned a raid on Krakow, after having already looted and seized Sandomierz (approximately 160km north east of Krakow). 

Quick interjection–you'll notice that I'm using multiple names to refer to the invading army. Although I think the most historically accurate term is the combined Mongol/Turkic army, I will refer to them as the Tartars, as that is the term used in most of my references.  According to the lovely Encyclopedia Britannica, "Tartar" is the umbrella term applied to any Turkic-speaking group. Ok, now back to the good stuff!

Legend has it that the Tartar armies wanted to surprise the city, so they decided to hunker down in the village of Zwierzyniec (fun fact: the street I used to live on was Zwierzyniecka). A group of local raftsmen happened upon the group while they were doing their regular regular river-based wood transportation. These local heroes attacked the would-be raiders in their sleep, killing many of the Mongol generals. The Polish attackers wore the slain's outfits and rode into the city. 

The Krakowians feared the city gates were breached! It was a great relief that the city dwellers were simply on the butt end of a prank, and were in fact not being attacked. Once the story had been all cleared up, the Mayor of Krakow declared the raftsmen as local heros, to be commemorated every year with a return of Lajkonik, dressed as Tartar Kahn, parading through the city streets. 

Yes, I agree, the part about the Mayor declaring an annual celebration day-of seems a little far fetched (especially since other sources say that the annual tradition only goes back to the 17th or 18th century). Also, I can't find any documentation concerning the fact that the city nearly was breached and that there was still (presumably) some unhappy Tartars waiting outside of the city. Regardless of the actual historical facts, it is true that every year there is a Lajkonik festival. 

On the first Thursday after Corpus Christi (10 June, 2021), a procession follows the plucky Lajkonik from Kosciuszko Mound, through Zwierzyniec, up the Old Town market square. Along the way, he and his follower reenact the battle, do a dance with the city flag, collect ransoms from shopkeepers (money, food, booze), and strike onlookers with a golden mace (which is considered to bring good luck). As put by In Your Pocket, "Lajkonik is so beloved he basically has carte blanche to do whatever he wants along the procession route." It takes five hours to travel to the city center (and there is no expectation that he will arrive sober), but on the square "he collects a tribute from the Mayor of Krakow" and the city citizens join him in raising a toast (Karnet). The whole ordeal ends with a salute to the city. 

Now you think to yourself, "well that sounds fun, but why is Aisha writing about this now rather than in June when the Lajkonik parade actually happens?" Well, my friend, it's because I am pessimistic that there will actually be a parade this year, as there wasn't one last year due to Covid precautions. Also, author David Abulifia, wrote that the first Tartar/Mongol invasion happened on Ash Wednesday- 10 March, 1241, which is enough of an Eater connection for me! So enjoy the read, and Wesołych Swiąt!

There he is in all of his glory- Lajkonik in his pointed hat and ridding his hobby horse. 

And here he is again, memorialized especially during Christmas time. 
What's interesting to me is the name "Lajkonik." I haven't found the origin anywhere, but the word konik is very similar to kón, which means "horse." If I look up "laj konik" (two words) on Google Translate, I get "hit the horse."

More Christmas decorations! He really is a local hero, celebrated more regularly than just on his celebratory day. If you zoom in, you can see Lajkonik making an appearance in one of the traditional Krakowian nativity scenes.

He's a common character to find all around. Here's a different nativity scene where you can see his outline in the center vestibule. 

As I said, he even appears on the local transit seats. 

I think I shared this photo already during my Grocery Stores post, but to prove my point you can see that the pretzel sticks are branded "Lajkonik." 

And last but not least–this is the real reason I decided to write about Lajkonik today. I was on a walk yesterday and spotted the bike racks shaped like our like our rootin' tootin' hero and figured it was finally time for me to do some research on this guy. 

I read a lot of online articles and blog posts beyond just the ones that are linked to in the main body of my post. The other websites I consulted can be found here, and most have great photos of the annual Lajkonik procession: