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It's been a while in Dubai

It’s just any other Friday evening. As the colours of the sky change from a dull indigo to a pale crimson to a beautiful midnight blue, I can see the lights come on. From where I sit, I can see the skyline of the famous Dubai Marina. The shadowy silhouette is slowly changing to a beautifully lit silhouette. I am tempted to take a bus, the F29, my lifeline, to Dubai Marina; just to walk by the water – with the many yachts parked, swaying almost negligibly, on one side and the tall rise buildings on the other side. There are residential buildings, hotels and office buildings, all shining glamorously as the designers have ensured that the steel and glass live up to their reputation of being popular modern architecture elements.

I don’t know if Dubai has ever been called the land of dreams, but for more than a million Asian and Western expats, this city has become synonymous to being called a second home. From the outside, Dubai is a perfect city – I say perfect thinking of Nadia Comaneci and her famous 10 score at the Olympics. But Dubai allows, or rather unceremoniously ignores the chaos, the tiny streets where hustlers sell their artefacts, where taxis park erroneously; surely making the visionaries of this futuristic city scratch their heads in their sleep, where an older generation – the one that came to Dubai in the 90’s – lives in buildings so old, it could remind you of a section of Mumbai’s Dadar.

But that’s what makes a city real right? Nobody wants (at least I don’t want) a city made of glass and steel and H&M’s and Starbucks’ without the tiny textile store that sells fabric by the yard – fabric magically imported from a small city in Rajasthan, the open stall selling chai with one or two plastic chairs scattered outside or the occasional cyclist selling all kinds of chaat (read – Indian chat) from his huge cane basket tied to his cycle. How these guys can make and sell all kinds of chaat from that tiny basket still amuses me.

When I came here – I kept worrying whether I would like the city. Apart from exorbitant rentals, exorbitant utilities – what else was there for me to find out about that would make me cringe. Or will there be small hidden secrets that this famous city keeps? Oh what about the people. Will they be nice? Stuck up? Busy – the kind where they have no mind space for meeting a new person – not today, not in 2034?

I have been taking the same bus to work for around 6 months now – as I said, my lifeline. It’s a comfortable Volvo – like most public transport buses in Dubai. Sometimes the bus gets too cold for my liking – and I really want to tell the driver to please increase the temperature. Of course I never got around to it. I can hardly get up from my seat as I am frozen – what an irony. Initially, I used to get on the bus with my headphones glued to my ears. Lately, I have been observing – I see myself talking to a lot of the commuters. From holding my faithful headphones in my hands – ready to plug them into my years if need be, to keeping them in my bag, I have started to actually enjoy listening to random stories – not so random any more as I actually did become good friends with some of the commuters. The tiny lady from Hungary who’s fiancé is from a small city in Mexico. The really tall lady from Libya who is waiting for her son to graduate from university so she can finally marry her fiancé (whom she has been dating for 10 years). They’re both in Dubai – along with a million other expats – to earn, live, laugh, enjoy, save, and splurge. I must say, the people are nice. Busy – yes, stuck up – if need be, all staring at their iPhones – obviously, just like me. Just like everyone else. Dubai is growing on me. There – I said it.

Source - top photo and second photo

Art inspiration in Dubai

Last weekend, I visited Alserkal Avenue, which is alternatively called a hub of creativity and art. I wanted to check it out for myself, see what exactly the place was all about. Even though it's October it is still hot and humid here in Dubai (I would have loved to declare that Autumn is here, but alas, not yet).

There's a lot of walking around to be done, the Avenue is a maze of warehouses, dotted neatly alongside a criss-cross of tiny lanes. Unsure of where to begin, I walked over to the A4 Space, it seemed like a popular meeting spot. The day I went, there were dozens of NYU students who had come to check out the place, like I had.

The A4 Space is a minimally designed, artsy warehouse space, with benches and chairs, plants and eclectic lighting fixtures all over. A small stairway led me to the top - where there were more couches and hundreds of books to browse through. This was only my first stop at the Avenue, and I couldn't wait to walk around (in spite of the heat).

Some photos from my visit.

 I wore a pair of comfortable cotton trousers and a blush tee from H&M.

The map around Al Serkal so you don't get lost - like I did. 
Or go without the map and figure out for yourself - like I did.

Some of my favorites are :

The Chocolate Makers
These guys manufacture the chocolate right there - and sell the amazing chocolate bars in their store. Most bars sell for around 35 AED, and are absolutely delicious. I got a couple - with the mango and the sea salt ones becoming my favorites. The chocolates also make perfect gifts as their packaging is brilliant.

The Odd Piece
This is essentially a rug shop - with some amazing designer rugs on sale. But these guys also sell decor house elements, with vases, lighting, chairs, small accessories, mirrors etc. I spent quite some time here, as I love interiors and decor.

Nadi Al Qouz
This is a cafe, so to speak, with a small counter selling health drinks, muffins, salads etc. This place has hammocks and other comfortable seating so you can sit here for hours and read a book or work on your laptop. During weekends, Nadi Al Qouz hosts events like a book reading or a gathering and they can be the perfect opportunity to meet new friends.

A4 Space
Another cafe, with benches and chairs to sit and work / read / talk or just draw something to inspire your creativity. Occasionally, this cafe also hosts artists and gives space for them to sell their work. When I visited, there was hand crafted jewelry on sale, made by a Turkish artist.

The Jam Jar
I had no idea what to expect when I walked in here. I saw a small kid doing an oil painting while her parents excitedly encouraged her. (What a nice space for kids I thought). I then walked a little more inside, to see an elderly man painting. (So this place was not only for kids). I loved the concept of this space, you can spend a few hours here, just pay for your canvas (depends on the size - starts at 125 AED) and all the other equipment like brushes, an apron, paint etc would be provided.

There are a tonne of amazing art galleries and I quite liked many of them - but since the artists keep changing I think these you should check out for yourself.

I had a great time at the Alserkal Avenue and I hope you do too. You can check the website here. They have so many activities and events happening here that you could visit every weekend and still find something new here.

If you liked this, you could subscribe to my Instagram page and Facebook page for more great stuff. Have a great weekend.

Swimming with dolphins in Dubai

At around 7 am on a lazy Friday summer morning, I look out of the window - hoping for a slightly less sunny day than usual. I was nervous, I hoped that day would go as expected. We took a cab by around 9 am after a quick breakfast - we'd rather be early than be late. Atlantis is a luxury resort located at the northern tip of the Palm Jumeirah (I always wondered how these artificial islands look like - would there be a lot of swaying palms ? Apparently not.).

We drove past the Atlantis hotel, and it was definitely majestic. On one side was the hotel on a sprawling piece of land, on the other side was the Arabian Gulf - the water looked a beautiful blue. As we walked into the Atlantis, along with 100s of other tourists, I was surprised. I did expect company, not throngs of people - the activity we had chosen was quite expensive (or so I thought). However, eventually I realized that most of the crowd would take a small turn towards the aqua park and the aquarium called 'Lost Chambers'. I was restored to my original state of mind. I really wanted to enjoy the morning.

We were given a map of the property, and I remember rolling my eyes (unconsciously of course) when I realized the Dolphin Bay was at another end of the property. 'Don't worry ma'am, there's a buggy that'll take you around' a nice lady quickly told me.

As we walked towards the buggy, we were instantly transported to a tropical island kind-of place - there was lush greenery wherever our eyes could see. After the buggy dropped us at the entrance to the Dolphin Bay, we were greeted by the staff. But hey, I wasn't listening. I had spotted the shiny dark grey figures swimming around casually in the bay. I stood fixed to the ground, seeing them swim around in one of the large pools was so beautiful. For someone who has never seen dolphins, this is a beautiful spectacle - for kids and adults alike.

After changing into a vest, we were all asked to attend a mandatory briefing session, where I learnt so much about these mammals. The dolphins here live longer than in the wild. I am not talking about all animals in captivity, this is specifically at Atlantis - The Palm. The dolphins here are so well taken care of, I have a hunch, better than the human employees. Their sessions are far apart, not every 60 minutes like in some shoddy dolphinariums. They're given the best medical support too. There's not 1 or 2 but more than 20 dolphins in there, they don't feel lonely which is so important as they're social animals.

My actual experience had not even begun but we were all already excited. We were then asked to enter the water (Finally!!). Even though it was peak summer, the water sent a slight chill to most visitors.We then met the 28 yo dolphin named Lisa. She was intelligent, had beautiful big eyes, and skin that I was envious of. We were asked to be very cautious, their mammal specialists treated them like how mammas treat their new born babies. We got to hug Lisa, give her a kiss and of course do a little jiggle with her. At times, I wished I was the mammal specialist - imagine spending all your time with these mammals (and getting paid for it). We were a group of 8 and while each member of the group got ready to kiss, hug and dance with the dolphin, Lisa would grace the remaining members of the group with a minute of her company. If she were a human, she would be a celebrity !

We were with Lisa for about 30 mins before she said good bye to us with a flip of the tail. I won't forget that experience, both thrilling and educational. I am usually against such attractions, underwater caged animals are the saddest thing! But after I did some reading, my own little research and talking to their contact center, I agreed to take my family here.There are many places in the world that offer these experiences, albeit pricey. But I know of so many places where the life of a dolphin is cut short because they're not well taken care of. Do your research before buying tickets. The best is to see them in the wild though :)

When you travel to Dubai - especially as a family with a kid or as a couple, one of the attractions that you would have on your bucket list would be an interaction with dolphins. I say bucket list as for many people, this is an over priced activity; ranging from anywhere between 150 AED to 1000 AED, or 40 USD to 270 USD. That is not including photos. You are not allowed to take in any camera / go pro etc into the water. The Atlantis really takes care of it's dolphins - and that comes at a price.

Tips :

  • For photos, there's an option (updated - October '17) where you can purchase all the photos for 500 AED. The photos are good quality - however, it's a soft copy - which I think is alright. However, if you go to buy 1 photo - you'll pay around 75 AED, so if you're a slightly big group - the 500 AED option makes sense.
  • While buying tickets - check the price online. However, I recommend also calling their contact center, as their staff are really helpful. We were able to get an idea about all the latest offers and promotions and ultimately benefited by getting slightly cheaper tickets. If you're traveling in the peak summer months or off season, there would definitely be some offers.
  • We had chosen the '30 minute shallow water interaction'. If you're a very good swimmer with decent stamina, you can opt for the deep water experience, for a small incremental fee. As I was going with my family and all of us had varying confidence levels in water, we chose the shallow water experience so we could be together.
  • If there's someone in your group whom you trust would take good photos, and this person is not entering the water, then you can ask this person to take photos as long as they don't enter the water. We did see some families where one parent opted to stay outside and take photos. There's a by-stander fee of 300 AED - still is more economical.
  • If you do care about how your photos turn out, then you would need to remember to put water proof make up or minimal make up, no bands or clips on your hair, no rings, no earrings etc - so come prepared.
  • This is an expensive activity with an average ticket price of around 700 AED per person - however, it is a commercial activity. The dolphins are well trained and will treat you exactly like how they will treat others. Then it doesn't matter if you like dolphins a 100 times more than the kid next to you who couldn't care less, or if you have actually gone diving with dolphins in the past.

What to wear and bring ?

Many a times, when you buy a dolphin bay ticket, you get a complimentary pass to their aqua park. I wore a pair of swim shorts and a swim suit. Most tourists to Dolphin Bay / Aqua Park wore their swim suits with a sarong or a lose dress. A lot of people also wore their bikini. I recommend bringing in a pair of swim shorts + swim suit or just your swim suit. And a dress / something to wear into and out of the Atlantis. Bring in lots of sunscreen and a small towel. Don't bring in a big bag - the lockers are typically small.

Is swimming with a dolphin one of those items on your bucket list ? Wherever you choose to be with these amazing mammals, please please ensure they take good care of their dolphins and the animals are not abused - or better still, go diving in the wild with them :)

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Traveling solo, tips and some safe destinations : Aswathy Honeylal

I am always in awe and inspired by a few friends of mine, who are bitten by the wanderlust bug, those who have full time jobs and yet, manage to travel, quite a bit. We got talking to Aswathy, an ex-colleague and a friend, who, yes very much, hopes to see as many countries and experience as many moments all over the globe as she can. She has been traveling solo for a couple of years now, and has traveled to 24 countries, and while I write this, I am sure she's planning her next trip.

1. Why did you first decide to travel solo?
I first decided to travel solo mainly because it was difficult for my friends and I to manage our leaves at the same time. At one point the desire to take a break and travel was so overwhelming, that it made me take the leap of faith, and do a solo trip (the best decision of my life :)). The mantra running in my head was, if not now, then when?

2. Has traveling solo impacted your career?
When I started travelling solo, I realized that exploring new places and making new friends who share your interests actually expands your thought process and makes you think out of the box. Planning an entire trip end to end, being financially independent and having back-up solutions in times of crisis; all these skills have made me a better manager at work as well. I would say travelling by yourself makes you realize your own strengths and weaknesses and be better at decision making which spills over to your professional life as well (like it has for me).

3. How do you manage your leaves? Especially in India, where I think it’s difficult to get your leaves through even if you’re eligible for them.
I do agree that it is a difficult task getting your entitled leaves in India, but I suppose after sometime you figure out the loopholes, and more importantly, gain your manager’s confidence that work will not suffer during your holiday time. I usually take a long holiday (2-3 weeks) towards the end of the financial year and another shorter holiday (1 week) around November – December. For other trips, I combine national holidays, weekends, etc with a couple of days leave so that I am not taking too many holidays.

Some tips to manage your leaves:
1. Combine leaves with holidays or long weekends, and as much as possible, plan in advance
2. Take your manager into confidence and assure him/her that your work will get affected
3. Have a person on your team be your backup when you are travelling
4. Ideally take your longer holiday when there is relatively less work/ during the off season - it helps in getting cheaper flight tickets as well ;)

4. What destination would you recommend to someone who is looking to travel solo? Especially women, as safety and local interaction is quite a sensitive topic for us.
For someone looking to travel solo, and if budget is not a constraint, I would recommend Netherlands. It is one of the most traveler friendly countries and you can always rent a bicycle and pedal around Amsterdam city. It has pretty much everything for all kinds of travelers: art, history, entertainment, natural beauty.

For the budget traveler, I would recommend Vietnam or Cambodia. Personally I have been to Cambodia, and it is one of the few countries which has impacted me because of their rife filled history of the Pol Pot regime. The way each country builds itself up after so much unrest, is something which gives you hope for a better future come what may. It builds resilience. As a solo female traveler, I have been much more comfortable travelling abroad than within India, because of the obvious reason of personal safety. Just like in India, there are areas in almost all countries which may be known for anti-social elements. It all depends on how well you do your research.

5. Sometimes, even parents tend to question solo travel, even though this is often well meaning. How did you handle this?
Initially my parents were not too keen on me travelling alone to foreign countries. The first couple of trips when I started off on my own, I flew from India to the country and joined a travel group who did the land travel. They used to take care of internal land travel as well as accommodation. This put my parents at ease as they had the complete travel itinerary along with contact numbers of the travel group and places where I was staying. This actually gave confidence to my parents that our daughter can handle things on her own.

When I travelled to South Africa, I planned the entire trip end to end, with hostels, internal travel details, and contacted a few friends who connected me to people in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In fact when you email Airbnb hosts or hostels regarding any kind of help, they usually do assist you in whatever requirement you have.

Now my parents have in fact started travelling with their batch mates. They recently went to Sri Lanka and Andamans with their alumni group. It took me about 3 years to ensure that my parents understand me enough to reach this level of confidence in me and my journeys across the world. From being worried when I travel alone, my folks are currently aware that as an individual I need to travel to re-connect with myself.

1. Map out your itinerary & connect with your family at least once a day when you are travelling (preferably at an agreed upon time)
2. Travel safe, do your groundwork and figure out danger zones which you may have to travel to

6. Any websites, groups, resources you’d like to share with the readers of this blog?
For cccommodation, most of the sites offer referral points/ offers: subscribing to these offers will definitely help. Some sites I use often are:
•  Airbnb
•  Hostelworld 
•  Expedia
•  Booking

For flight bookings for the best deals, I would recommend that as a traveler, be flexible with either your dates of travel or location of travel. I usually use these sites:

Usually some of the credit cards also offer good deals, like Citi Premier Miles card which gives you free lounge access and the miles can be converted to buy flight tickets.

I also often take free walking tours (most of them work on a tip basis) but the most important thing is that the walking tour would be conducted by a local so, you can get your bearings of the place as well as clear all doubts in one go. In Europe, Sandeman’s is one of the best walking tours.

PS: There are thousands of groups in Facebook for solo travelers, women travelers, nomadic travelers, etc. Any one of them will help you in case you have any doubts of any sort regarding food, even in case of emergency, some of them are known to open their homes also for a fellow traveler.

7. Why do you think it is important to travel?
Travelling is something that pushes you out of your comfort zone. New experiences, getting over your own fears, helping your fellow travelers get over their fears; exploring places which you would never have thought of going gives you a new perspective on life and teaches you lessons that last for a lifetime. In Berlin, I learned more about the Berlin Wall and how life was for a common person when I struck up a conversation with a lady I met at a café. It taught me as a people, how Berliners recovered from the horrors done to it post the Cold War. It teaches resilience.

In South Africa, I decided to overcome my fear of heights, by bungee jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge. The kind of encouragement and support the fellow bungee jumpers gives you, be it someone you know, or a total stranger, makes you thankful for the kindness of strangers and restores faith in people. A family I met while travelling in Turkey, took me in and considered me a member of their own family, when I was in Johannesburg.

Travelling teaches you to be responsible in a lot of ways; be it solo travel or with friends. It gives you friends across the world, and a virtual family who you know will be there for you should you need anything. Above all, you become the sum total of all your experiences in life. I can honestly say that after being to 24 countries, I am more aware of being responsible about the products I use (in terms of doing my part to reduce the carbon footprint on the world), about research and planning my trips, as well as being financially independent.

8. Finally, what destination are you off to next?

She can be reached here and here, or by mailing her at aswathyhoneylal at gmail dot com

Thank you, Aswathy!

Read more about traveling solo here 

#Stylefile Styling the Kalamkari skirt

I love Indian prints. Period. Whether it is Ikat or Kalamkari, these prints, if worn well, are statement pieces. Last time I went home, my mum gifted me this Kalamkari skirt. It was a full length one, which she'd got from Gujarat (she got it directly from the artisan). I loved the skirt, but was unsure how to style it. One immediate option was to pair it with a silk camisole, tucked in of course. I would have picked maroon or dark red - it would have been a good contrast to the earthen colours of the skirt. But I wanted to wear something, umm, more sturdy, so to speak. Also, I did not want to buy something new.

So I paired it with a cotton shirt. It was unconventional, but I think a plain cotton shirt with a full length printed skirt looks quite nice. It is not too formal but still quite sophisticated. I wanted it for an everyday wear, not a function.

While driving around Dubai, one location which I really have been meaning to check out was Al Serkal Avenue. The Avenue is filled with cafes, art exhibitions, creative spaces and it was perfect for spending time just getting things done, or reading (if it is me). Quiet dreamy spaces are so rare. We shot a few photos here and then hanged a bit (there were hammock chairs!!!!). This space is called Nadi Al Qouz, but I am pretty sure that every space inside Al Serkal is this pretty.

Would you travel solo? Some notes.

A younger version of myself would have dismissed solo travel, putting it under the 'too daring, unsafe and 'not me' bracket'.

But last year, I had traveled to Andaman Islands alone. I was quite nervous for so many reasons. I had never traveled solo before. Of course, I have taken long flights alone but traveling alone by choice, that was a first.

With every important experience comes lessons and confidence, and of course, observations aplenty. Here are some notes from my solo travel experience.

10 all time favorite feel good movies

Yesterday, I saw myself flipping through three hard dives searching for that perfect movie. This has happened to me before. All I wanted to do was watch a feel-good movie, otherwise, in my terms, defined as a chic flick. There are some movies, which even if you watch for the hundredth time, still leave you dreamy. And then there are some, which you've heard about so often, that you want to push yourself to watch them, but just can't go ahead.

We all need happily ever afters amidst our daily chores and a good laugh after long meetings. Here, I'm listing my happy movies, the ones I can rely on to cheer me up after a bad week or a blah day at work.

Exploring Kuwait - Mirror House and Souk Mubarakiya

Like a scene from a movie.
Did you ever think you would have to move to a country that every one warned you about? Sometimes it happens - school, college, work, marriage - being some of the reasons on the top of my mind. But isn't it almost unlikely that you will actually start to love the place?
Hard to explain, but I am going to miss Kuwait so much. Like so much. But this post isn't a rant about my love for this desert country. I'm going to write about a few of my places I love about here.

The Mirror House

Lidia Al-Qattan came to Kuwait in the 1960's from Northern Italy and ever since, has had a beautiful relationship with the country. She married the late Kuwaiti artist Khalifa Al-Qattan - who is a pioneer of art in Kuwait. Lidia has created much of the work herself. She herself gives tours of the house which is a testimony of the work both the artists have created. When we arrived, we could see mirror work on the outside of the compound wall. We saw butterflies, stars and flowers - all in mirror. Now, the truth is that this place looks a million times better in real that in photos. We could not stop being in awe.