A Day in Dubai Part 2

Is there any such thing as too much money? It’s doubtful that I’ll ever know. If it is possible, then the physical incarnation of that status is Dubai, U.A.E.. Dubai is a principality of the United Arab Emirates, a collection of territories ruled by dynastic families. They do “richer” bigger, better and flashier than any other country. Their grand wealth originates with oil, likely not a surprise to anyone.  Upon my return from Kenya, Africa I had reserved a “layover tour”. It was designed to allow onward bound passengers a quick overview of Dubai between connecting flights to other destinations.  In the article previous to this I wrote about the first part of my tour which started in the desert and had the unexpected bonus of meeting a caravan of camels. The second part of my tour introduced me to the city of Dubai.  It would be a private day tour: It was affordable, it would be tailored to meet my time constraints and I would be able to focus on what I wanted to see. A driver and tour guide were my city escorts. I hopped into the back of a black Mercedes Benz to start the 5 hour whirl around Dubai.  Rising from the desert much like you would imagine the city of Oz, it is the wealthiest city and also the cleanest city I have visited. The city is so new it still sparkles.Image result for mercedes benz in dubai

While money may not be able to buy you love, it can buy the biggest and the finest of almost anything on the planet. My tour started with the Zabeel Palace, home of the Royal family. I assumed no one was home as I didn’t see anyone who resembled a King or a Prince, so we just did a drive through. It was for the best though, as we had a tight schedule to keep. Our next “stop” was in front of Emirates Towers, the financial center – a further reminder of how rich they are and how “rich” I’m not. The Burj Khalifa is indeed impressive, a modern skyscraping building 163 floors tall and currently the tallest building in the world. When offered the opportunity to visit the observation deck on level 125, I declined. Not for fear of heights but as a time-saving option and a preference to see things on the ground in real perspective. We continued to the legendary shopping malls for a peek into how the rich and famous live and shop. Burjuman Mall is a 3 story mall with all the finest retailers represented.Image result for Burjuman mall You could pop in to Chopards and pick up a $36,000 watch on a whim or visit Bvlgaris next door for a jeweled necklace at $52,000. How do you choose? On a much larger scale, since it clearly doesn’t snow in the desert, the people of Dubai have brought the snow inside the Mall of the Emirates.  A 242,000 square foot snowscape is complete with indoor ski lifts, 5 slopes and wait for it – a black diamond run providing an artificial day in the Alps!  During this incredible “couldn’t afford anything” shopping experience the need arose to use the restroom. Modern in every way, it was also immaculately clean. That’s thanks to the employee whose only job is to keep the facility sanitized which includes a full “brush swishing” each time a stall is used. I was impressed. The third window shopping extravaganza brought us to the Dubai Mall. This is the mall for the less wealthy. What it lacks in diamonds in makes up for with the multi-story aquarium that houses a variety of aquatic creatures including sharks. The animal rights person in me doesn’t approve but I do have to admit that it gets your attention. This was a far less authentic retail experience than visiting traditional outdoor markets. Our next stop was to visit the spice and gold markets, which are known locally as “souks”. The souks were located in the Deira District across the Dubai Creek. My touring team and I boarded an Abra, a traditional wooden boat, to cross the main waterway. Doubting the stability of the vessel I put my faith in my guides (who surely wouldn’t get a tip if I drowned) and the other locals, who also were headed to the markets. We entered the marketplace and without even seeing the merchandise, knew immediately that we were in the Spice Souk. The heady aromas created an exotic experience mixed with tasting options. Stalls packed with both locals and tourists crowding the aisles were made more challenging each time bags of new merchandise were ferried to its intended seller. The merchants called out to passersby, each vendor trying to encourage potential customers to enter his or her shop. Fresh herbs were plentiful and depending upon how much you wished to purchase, your selections were hand measured and scooped into small brown bags. The gold market had almost as many options but was less frenzied. Perhaps, like me, the other shoppers were dazzled by this incredible display of wealth. The window shops glittered with the sparkle of thousands of pieces of gold jewelry. This was not jewelry as we know it – bracelets, necklaces or rings. Nestled on the velvet pillows in the display windows you could find gold cuffs, gold head pieces, and elaborately detailed full bodice draped necklaces that sparkled from a woman’s neck down to her waist, often used as a bridal accessory. If you aren’t a fan of gold, no worries, there were plenty of diamonds, gem stones and platinum from which to choose as well. I do like a market that has something for everyone, yet I still came away empty handed! As always l tried to squeeze in more things than time allowed. There’s always one more thing to see or do and we found ourselves running a bit behind. I urged my driver to go a bit faster and was informed that it was not wise to exceed the speed limit.  I remarked on the performance level of the car they were driving and questioned their restraint at not exceeding the speed limit. Politely but with a hint of humor they explained that most locals do not speed. The Police would not only catch up to us but would likely spin circles around our vehicle, pass us and wait for us to catch up to them.  Police squad cars are a mix of confiscated Aston Martins, Bugatis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and McLarens, some of the fastest cars on the road. I’m happy to report that we didn’t get pulled over and I arrived at the airport on time.Image result for police cars dubai

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A Day in Dubai (Part 1)

After 9 incredible days in Kenya, Africa it was time to say “goodbye”.  Squeezing in one final early morning safari prepared me for the long ride back to the airport.  My return flight was on Emirates Airlines with a connecting stop through Dubai. Having a choice of several layover times, I did the opposite of what most would have chosen. Instead of the shortest layover, I chose the longest. My research showed that “layover tours” were not only available but were a very popular option for a day in Dubai. It wouldn’t be a comprehensive tour during those 10 hours between flights but would provide enough time to see the major highlights and the storied excesses of wealth. There was no need to commit to additional hotel bills or unpacking and repacking. There was no extra time away from home or work required. It was a perfect arrangement to allow me to see just the right amount of this fascinating country. The red sand dunes were particularly alluring and also at the top of my wish list.Image result for dubai sand dunes

I wanted to see the sun rise over those dunes and that meant an early start. My flight arrived into Dubai at 4:45 am and my prearranged private tour would depart from the airport at 5:30 am. The guide was wide awake and a bit too energetic for someone like me with jet lag and sleep deprivation. It was dark when we departed the Dubai airport and the sun wasn’t expected on duty for at least another hour.  We drove to the desert in less than an hour and the soothing motion of the easy ride lulled me. Drifting in and out of a light sleep it was physical proof of how tired I actually was. Despite the guide’s attempt at conversation, I wasn’t good company. Regret quickly crept in about overestimating my stamina.  How could I possibly withstand 9 hours of additional touring?

My singular request had been to watch the sunrise over the desert. I rarely get to see a sunrise in my daily life and imagined that this had the potential to be an extraordinary experience.  We arrived at the desert as darkness began to fade and give way to the first signs of color. Horizontal bands of violet melted into pink before blending into orange and then finally, golden yellow. At the center of this grand prism of color was a small but brilliant circle of light, the sun.   We watched in silence as the sun rose and appeared to grow in size. When my guide started taking photos too, it was proof to me that this was more than a nice experience – it transcended to spectacular. The early morning glow on the dunes was worth every mile.  It was quiet and still and easy to feel like we were the only people on the planet, until, the “crowd” arrived.Image result for sunrise over desert

The dunes are a home base for camel rides. It was not something that interested me and at that hour of the morning they weren’t open for business. Several camels were standing in a holding pen. They were hidden behind silk panels to either prevent them from seeing out or tourists from peeking into the pen. As always, I’m drawn to animals so I approached the pen and pushed my hand past the material walls. The camels were eager for interaction][=-++ and I obliged with a few pats. My driver was waiting and the sun was rising. My attention was redirected to watching the sky and returned to stand with my driver. Apparently word spread fast that an animal lover was in their midst. Almost silently, the dromedaries left their stockade and we were soon surrounded by a caravan of camels. Twelve curious creatures, who likely were looking for a snack, were just as satisfied with a few strokes on the head. They were gentle, they were smelly and I could not have been happier. Camels come in two makes and models. The Bactrian is the two humped camel and found mostly in Central Asia. It has a relative called the Wild Bactrian Camel which, unfortunately, is critically endangered.  Those that remain are found in Northwest China and Mongolia. More than 90 percent of the world’s camels are of the Dromedary variety the same as my new “friends”. But there was nothing common about the experience of meeting them. Eventually, they decided to move on. There was something mystical, even ethereal about watching them cross the sandy slopes silhouetted in the light of a new day.

With the day officially started it was time to return to the city for more touring. I didn’t want to leave this place of peace, sunlight and camels but I boarded the SUV. Having been very explicit about not wanting to bash dunes, my driver insisted it was something that I needed to experience. I disagreed. As a frequent victim of motion sickness, I have a pretty good idea of my level of motion tolerance and politely declined. He was driving – we bashed dunes. Lightly. Dune bashing can be best described as a roller coaster using an SUV as the vehicle, without the security of being attached to rails. Your experience is completely dependent upon the driver’s skills and level of bravado. Similar to a rollercoaster you ride to the top of a dune. Once you crest, the driver controls the speed and direction of the descent, often sliding sideways before continuing an ascent of the next dune. Sometimes you are moving forward, sometime sideways, before swooping down to the base and starting again. I didn’t enjoy it – wouldn’t do it again (never say “never”) – but at least now, I have bragging rights.Image result for dubai dune bashing

It was hard to leave the serenity of the desert but the day was just starting and we had many miles to cover. We headed back to the city of Dubai in daylight and morning work traffic to where my tour of the man made landmarks would continue.

The dunes were covered with the tracks of daredevils that preceded me. It seemed like a violation of the beauty and delicacy of the sandy hills. Then you remember that mother nature always reclaims what is hers will eventually wipe away the tracks left behind by humans.

Common at our Cores

I frequently mention that I came of age in New York City. People often shrink back when you mention the Bronx, unless of course, you’re speaking with another person who grew up in the Bronx. They will understand. They get it. The Bronx was different in the 60’s and early 70’s. It was a nice cultural blend.  As I reminisce over childhood photos, I now notice what I failed to see back then. My friends and I didn’t look alike. There was definitely “variety” of the cultural type and that variety was – is good.  The people smiling for the camera from the front stoop of our apartment building were just my “friends”. Yet, now I know that we differed in color, religion and languages. It didn’t matter. What mattered was whether the older boys would block us from the playground with their game of stick ball or if it was hot enough for the water sprinklers in the park to be turned on so we could cool off. These memories came to me as I sat in the departure lounge of the airport..

I wondered what the cause of this nostalgic flashback was and recognized that it was fear! Fear of the unknown about the journey I was about to undertake by myself.   As I sat in JFK Airport with three long hours before departure, I felt uncomfortable I was ready to embark on a long journey into areas where my appearance, language and style of dress would be different from the local people. Very different. I had chosen Emirates Airlines based upon their excellent reputation. Emirates is an airline lauded for its service and owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, known for their wealth and excess. Perhaps you’ve seen a well-known sit-com actress emerging from the shower in First Class aboard one of this carrier’s planes?Image result for emirates airline

This would be the first leg on my journey to Africa. Due to the home port of this particular airline, our first destination and my connecting point, would be Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The passengers gathered in the waiting area offered a brief glimpse into what would soon be the majority population. Both by being a female travelling solo and skin tone, I was now in the minority.Image result for dubai airport

The flight was a very pleasant experience and most of my fellow travelers were returning home after a visit to the United States. As we began our descent, I noticed that several women made their way to the restroom. Not an uncommon happening but many returned to their seat wearing traditional attire, having packed away their casual clothes, We exited the plane and as I entered the terminal I quickly realized that as a light-skinned female unaccompanied by a male I was an oddity. However, I was treated with courtesy and allowed myself to explore the features of the terminal.  The airport of Dubai is unlike any other airport I’ve experienced. Immaculately clean, high tech with amazing design features that include a multistory waterfall, pristine public restrooms and shops where, if the need should arise, you could quickly grab a new Fendi bag or replace your diamond bracelet for something more glamorous and not miss your connecting flight. Many travelers sported Western attire but there was a noticeable increase in the number of men dressed in Thobes, an ankle length cotton tunic over matching pants. Some wore hats or a keffiyeh scarf, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress. The variety in women’s style was broader. Many women wore street clothes with a fashionable hijab, a scarf worn to cover their head.Image result for dubai women headscarf

Others wore an Abaya, a loose, black robe that covered their street clothing. I spotted a few women in a traditional Burqa which completely covered their bodies except for their eyes. It was an incredible contrast to the high end fashion available for sale in the stores at the airport. As I boarded my connecting flight to Nairobi I was less conscious about my gender and more so about my complexion. Likely, it was more of a personal interpretation as the attention I received appeared to have more to do with curiosity than prejudice. The airport in Nairobi is best described as primitive and similar to the smaller airports in the Caribbean. A bus transferred us from the tarmac to the luggage and immigration area. The economic disparity evident in equipment, facilities and lack of sophistication of service presentation. There seemed to be no one in charge, no organized plan for moving the arriving passengers to the next stage of the journey. Yet, it works. Eventually, we all made our way through the terminal and I to my pre-assigned driver. The percentage of people who look like me had shrunk to under 1%. I am now in the minority population.  As an unofficial “ambassador” of the United States, I do my best to appear friendly, respectful and to fit in, eager to embrace Kenya. The financial disparity between Kenya and Dubai is impossible to ignore. The poverty in Kenya glaringly obvious, the desire for a clean city is pushed to the bottom of a long list of needs. At the top of that list are food, shelter and a regular income, enough to provide for a family. I had engaged a private driver to meet me at the airport. Riding through the city past stores and hotels I noticed that every establishment had some form of security. Public facilities were gated requiring that all visitors be screened and recognized before gaining admission. Yet, during the daytime hours I was comfortable enough to walk from my hotel to the convention center. I found that if I greeted the local citizens, they always responded with courtesy. I began every query with the local greeting of “Jambo!” It’s familiar, shows respect and indicates that I know something, even a tiny bit, about their culture. When I needed to ask for directions, the people I approached were reserved but helpful. Were any of the locals uncomfortable seeing me or interacting with me? Perhaps, but no one indicated such. I experienced warm hospitality, national pride and courtesy. I also learned that despite our outward appearances and material coverings, at our cores, we all have much in common.

If you enjoyed this article, head to https://embassytravelny.wordpresscom/ to read my previous  Southern Dutchess News articles.

I Kissed A Giraffe and I Liked It

I had been in Kenya for a week and yet, this was the day I most anticipated. I had already experienced several game drives in two different areas.  Being on safari allows you to view animals in their natural habitat. It’s exciting, unpredictable and amazing – but it’s often from a distance. Today, I would be participating in a trio of touring visits that would include close animal encounters and a classic love story.  I was part of a small group travelling in 3 vehicles. The Kenyan government considered our delegation to be Very Important People and as such were afforded a police escort. I’m sure that it was partially for protection but it also enabled us to zip through any red light that dared slow our pace. Our first stop was the David Sheldrick Elephant Wildlife Trust.  I had read about the wonderful work and successful rehabilitation efforts by the organization. Their main focus are orphaned and injured elephants, but they also care for injured Rhinos. The eles*, as the locals affectionately refer to the behemoths, are housed in a private area and brought out to a public viewing ring. Hundreds of tourists and school children line the roped off arena as the young adult eles, trunks swinging, eagerly trot to the center. It’s feeding time!  The handlers, dressed in long green lab coats and sturdy rubber boots, push wheel carts to the center of the ring. The carts are mounded with jumbo sized “baby” bottles.  Daphne Sheldrick was the first person to have perfected the milk formula and necessary husbandry for infant milk-dependent Elephants and Rhinos”. That’s quite an accomplishment that has saved un-told numbers of lives. The older calves drink while holding the bottle with their trunks and after draining their nourishment drop their bottles to the ground.

Due to the crowding and my lack of height I was unable to secure an open space to take photos. The audience was 6 people deep and pressed tightly together, all eager for the best view. I weighed the options of pushing my way to the front of the group or going to the other side of the arena. I didn’t want to further the image of the pushy American and extracted myself from the mass of people. The crowd thinned the further I got from the elephants but I had an unimpeded view and was able to take photos. The juvenile eles were rolling in the red clay mud, scooping it up with their trunks and spraying it on their bodies. This is a natural way of protecting their hides from both sunburn and insect bites. It’s also probably just good fun.  Surveying my surroundings revealed that I was positioned next to a worn path. I wondered if I had gotten really lucky. If my guess was correct, that path would be the entry and exit route for the elephants. The resulting photos prove that I was in arm’s reach of the elephants. Indeed, I was able to gently touch these baby behemoths leaving me too, happily covered in red mud.Asanje watched over by a keeper

*pronounced ellies

If you’d like to support or learn more about the orphaned elephants or just see some great photos access this link:

www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

 

A.F.E.W. Giraffe Sanctuary

I would have spent the rest of the day watching the elephants roll in the mud but I had a date with a giraffe! Our group departed the elephant sanctuary and travelled to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Giraffe Centre. If, like me, you thought: if you’ve seen one Giraffe you’ve seen them all – you’d be wrong. The first thing I learned is that there are several types of giraffes and the Sanctuary housed four: The Reticulated Giraffe, Northern Giraffe, Masai Giraffe and Southern Giraffe. The second thing I learned is that, to sub quote the popular Katy Perry song, – I kissed a Giraffe and I liked it! Actually, the truth is more along the lines of I put a treat in my mouth and the giraffe gently took it from me. Since our lips didn’t actually touch I guess it wasn’t a real kiss. But, a girl can dream. I don’t often support this type of interaction between human and a beast that is supposed to be wild. However, it’s hard to ignore that affection for and protection of an animal is often symbiotic and therefore more likely to be successful.

If you’d like to support or learn more about the rescued giraffes, or just see some great photos, access this link:Image result for giraffes

www.giraffecenter.org

 

Karen Blixen House – “I had a farm in Africa – at the foot of the Ngong Hills” If you’re a fan of “Out of Africa” you will recognize this as the opening line of Karen Blixen’s memoir. The last stop on our touring trifecta was a visit to The Karen Blixen house. It was of less interest to me but many in our entourage were ardent fans of her book and the film, also entitled “Out of Africa” starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. The popularity of the love story between the married Karen Blixen and her paramour remains strong as was evidenced by the crowds present that day. The manor home, originally known as M’Bogani House, is situated on a beautiful piece of property overlooking the Ngong Hills.  I had not seen the incredibly popular movie but the tour guides offered a gentle caution to all newcomers that “Denys Finch Hatton was no Robert Redford.” I suppose I could be generous in my interpretation that they were trying to convey that Mr. Hatton was not an actor by trade. However, side by side photos of the two men provide confirmation that the comment referenced each man’s physical attributes. Robert Redford is handsome. Dennis Finch Hatton was not. Still, Karen Blixen fell in love with him and their love story is what draws thousands of visitors to the house annually.  There’s a romantic appeal to the grounds which are well kept and expansive. Much of the original furnishings remain in the home, further bringing their story to life. The house carries the hallmark of once upon a time wealth which eventually evaporated and unfortunately fell into disrepair. In the 1980’s it was refurbished with financial help from Universal Studios, the producer of the film Out of Africa, and opened as a public museum.Image result for karen blixen house

The solitary grave of Denys Finch Hatton marked by an obelisk and garden, is located on the slopes of the Ngong Hills, overlooking the Nairobi National Park.

If you’re an Out of Africa fan access this link:

www.museums.or.ke/karen-blixen/,

Walking with the Maasai

Many years ago I became enamored of the 1994 movie “The Air up There” starring Kevin Bacon. The story focused on a Basketball Coach at St. Josephs, a fictional Christian college, and his relationship with a Maasai Prince. The Prince, named Saleh is an extraordinarily talented and tall athlete. The Maasai people, are an indigenous African tribe best known for wearing traditional red checkered wraps and their height. It is common to see a Maasai male over 6 feet tall.Image result for maasai

In the film the Coach travels to Africa to recruit the player to come to America. It’s a story about overcoming odds as the Coach challenges himself during a tribal ritual to win the trust of the tribe and succeeds. But, it’s also a lesson in respect towards others and accepting different cultures. The movie ends with the Coach achieving personal growth and Saleh coming to America to play for St. Josephs. My fascination with the film influenced my decision to visit the Maasai Mara. I chose to visit Amboseli Park.  It is one of the larger game reserves in Kenya, Africa sitting on the border of Tanzania in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The name, given by the locals, translates to “salty dust”. The possibility of seeing Mt. Kili, its local name, was a factor when choosing my safari site. The reserve is best known for its many herds of elephants. Amboseli Park shares the land with the Maasai people. My resort, Serena Lodge, enjoys a unique relationship with the tribal members[DC1]  and offers several cultural activities. Handmade craft items decorate the resort and are available for sale. Traditional attire, songs and dance are woven into the entertainment offerings. It’s a successful program that fosters interaction between locals and guests.

A visit to a local Maasai homestead was available. Bumping along the dirt road to the village it was impossible to ignore the poverty.  A colorful welcoming committee of young male adults greeted us. I can attest that the director of the aforementioned movie “The air up there” was successful at recreating the village with a high degree of accuracy. What the village lacked was the aristocratic factor central to the movie plot.Image result for maasai village Our local hosts demonstrated their jumping dance, each person trying to jump higher than the person before. The dancers encouraged us to join them and some visitors gave it their best effort. Rhythmic music was accompanied by chanting and I took delight in watching a cluster of 3- and 4- year olds smiling and bouncing to the drums.  Divided into smaller groups we were then accompanied by a Maasai host who welcomed us into their personal home.  Communal huts are constructed of straw and animal dung and are built primarily for shelter at night. The majority of life is lived in the open common areas. Men often take multiple wives and women raise and educate the children while men tend the livestock. Milk, blood and meat make up the majority of their indigenous diet and most supplement their earnings by crafting beaded jewelry and artwork. The pressure to purchase items was strong, and I did capitulate. I came away disappointed by the commercialism but justified it as a way to preserve their culture. My visit proved that the director of “The Air Up There” was successful at recreating the village with detailed accuracy.

My second encounter with the Maasai was during a program offered by the Serena resort. A rather gregarious and larger tribesman engaged me in conversation and invited me to the presentation on their culture. I was in between safari drives and accepted his invitation. Sitting with a small group of fellow tourists, we were entertained with local songs by a group of young Maasai. Maybe it was their teenage behavior or perhaps their cell phones but this interaction seemed less genuine as they were more interested in interacting with each other. Their discomfort at having to perform was obvious.  My discomfort pretending to be interested was less obvious. I did, however, learn that most Maasai wear sandals made from recycled tires. They make an odd fashion statement but the wearer will often brag he won’t need another pair for 20 years.

I enjoyed one final Maasai interaction on my last afternoon at the lodge. I ventured out to explore the resort’s quieter areas. I followed a path to the border of the game reserve on the edge of the Mara. I was drawn to a large pack of baboons and monkeys. As I was watching the primate-parade I noticed that I was being watched. A Maasai approached me to share some information about the animals and asked where I was from. He was quiet and reserved and it seemed as though I might have intruded upon his privacy. Our small talk continued until I asked about a particular plant. His answer was thorough and interesting and led to more questions. He started to walk into the woods and indicated that I should follow, and I did.  We continued walking through the woods as he called to my attention different trees, tracks and droppings left by animals. He explained how, as indigenous people, they used the plants for medicine and better health. Image result for maasai plants  

I had been advised to not take photos but, he was kind enough to pose for me. His reserved gentility is obvious in the photo. Of my three encounters it was the last, quiet walk through the woods that felt most authentic, less staged. I came away feeling trusted, privileged and enlightened.

Me, Myself, and I

Is it me? Something that I said or didn’t say? Something that I did or didn’t do? For reasons I don’t fathom, I couldn’t convince anyone to accompany me on a trip to Africa. It will be my second time to the continent and I find that I’m still as excited about this visit as I was for my first. Perhaps even more so, because I have a better idea of what to expect: warm hospitality, endless sky, wide open plains and pure unaltered nature. Africa is everything you expect it will be, with a few surprises thrown in here and there.  The purpose for my visit was to attend the annual American Society of Travel Agents Destination Expo held this year in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa.Image result for kenya landscape

The location of the Expo changes each year and I’ve enjoyed attending many of these events. The entertainment is regional and always exceptional. The hospitality is both warm and sincere. There’s no better way to learn about an area than to experience it in person.  I had the option to bring guests with me to the convention. I actually anticipated having to choose between eager invitees and constructed a contingency plan that would allow for travelling with several intrepid adventurers. But alas, while there was lots of up front interest, no one was willing to commit. Except for me. I decided that as a party of “3” – me, myself and I, it would still be a good time and oh, the sights we would see! Even though I would travel solo I wouldn’t be completely alone for the entire time. I maintain a membership with the American Society of Travel Agents, the world’s largest association of travel professionals. Our members include travel agents and tour companies, hotel chains, cruise lines, car rental companies and international tourist boards. ASTA advocates not only for the travel industry but also for the traveling public. ASTA is active in ensuring that the public has full access to all travel venues and is vigilant in uncovering travel scams. Once I arrived in Nairobi, the Capitol city of Kenya, I would have the company of hundreds of other people in the travel industry while at the convention. Surely I would make “friends” along the way. The ASTA Destination Expo offered the opportunity to meet our Kenyan counterparts and to make connections with local tour operators and hoteliers. I was excited to go but I harbored concerns about how I would handle potential bumps in the road. Would I be lonely, bored or worse, scared? As a female travelling alone, anywhere, there’s an implied risk that I might be a potential victim and I thought that it would be best if there was some structure in my new found freedom. I invested a few extra dollars in private transportation each time I changed locations. The comfort of knowing exactly who would be meeting me at the airports and other locations was worth the money.  Staying at Safari lodges assured that all my transportation, touring and meals would be handled by the resorts. Travelling solo gave me a freedom I hadn’t realized I was missing. There was no need to consult with anyone else about closet space, departure times or worse, listen to someone else’s snoring. Meeting new people and enjoying the stories of their previous travels was an unexpected pleasure. Africa is usually not a first destination for travelers so there are often lots of tales to share and compare. My preference would have been to stay at a unique, boutiquey type hotel but it was more convenient to stay at the corporate-style host hotel, Nairobi Intercontinental.Image result for nairobi intercontinental hotel

The majority of conference attendees would be housed here and I was sure to see some familiar faces. My decision was further influenced by the level of security the property employs; each vehicle entering the hotel grounds is thoroughly scanned as are all on-foot visitors. Most of the airlines servicing Nairobi National Airport house their crew at the hotel so there was a steady stream of impossibly well-groomed pilots and flight attendants coming and going. In other words, it was a good place to be if you were in the travel industry. My days were filled with classes and social functions and due to our proximity to the Convention Center, I often chose to eschew the complimentary transport buses and walked to and from the Convention Center and hotel. The benefits were many. The exercise helped work off a little bit of the dessert, okay – desserts, I consumed. Observing the local population as they went about their daily lives offered tremendous cultural insight. After enjoying a few brief exchanges with some of the people, I found that they kept to themselves until approached and then were more than willing to assist with questions or directions. Might I have ventured off on my own if I’d had a travel companion? Perhaps, but most likely we would have conversed amongst ourselves. That’s how it often goes – you dance with the “date” that brought you to the dance. If I’d had a steady dance partner it’s unlikely that I would have sat next to a very gregarious woman from the Philippines who dug her elbow into my side every single time she told a joke and made herself laugh. I wouldn’t have met her equally engaging family who accepted me as one of their own. We continued the journey together as, what in high school would be called, the popular kids. Other agents flocked to our growing group and it became necessary to connect several tables to seat us all together for meals. My current plan is to join them at a future conference in China where hopefully it will be me, myself and them.Image result for china landscape

 

Don’t Leave Home without It

“Don’t leave home without it”. Truer words might not have been spoken, even if it is the slogan for a major credit card company.  This is the story of how I embarked on my recent trans-continental journey and inadvertently left my credit and debit cards at home.

When I am preparing to travel I utilize a master packing list. It’s a compilation of basic and necessary items that I bring on every trip. As I pack something I cross it off the list. It’s a pretty simple and usually effective system, with the purpose of preventing me from forgetting essentials. My first destination was Kenya, Africa and I would be on the go visiting several areas and two countries. My goal was to travel as lightly as possible but I still would be checking a piece of luggage with the airline. I would also bring a carryon bag, a small backpack and my pocketbook. I finished preparing for my departure 30 minutes earlier than I allowed, sat down and congratulated myself on my organization. In that half hour I made a critical decision: I saw no need to bring both a backpack and pocketbook. I chose to leave the pocketbook at home in lieu of a new RFID, Radio Frequency ID blocking, theft proof cross-body passport holder/wallet combo. The new bag would be a more appropriate and functional choice for travelling. The car service that would bring me to the airport arrived a bit early and since I had cleared myself for takeoff we departed. The ride was uneventful and the traffic cooperated. My check in and screening process went smoothly and I found myself with 3 hours of free time to catch up on Hollywood gossip via the magazines I brought from home. The boarding process went smoothly and the plane was not quite full. My seat assignment placed me in a row with 3 seats where I was the only passenger. I relaxed, stretched out and watched a movie while immaculately groomed attendants brought me food and pillows. This was a great start to what would be a grand adventure.

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Sometime after dinner and dessert and before the pizza snacks would be served, my subconscious urged me to check for my credit cards. Even as I reached for my bag, in my gut, I already knew what I wouldn’t find.  I searched through my 2 carryon items and RFID bag. When I was done, I searched again and yet again. I had left my credit cards at home in my pocketbook.  Dread turned to panic and I had to remind myself that there was nothing I could do at almost 40,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.  I needed to calm myself and devise a plan for when I changed planes in Dubai.  After exiting the plane I immediately attempted to call my office but the call went unanswered. I had miscalculated the time difference. The office was closed and wouldn’t reopen until I was airborne continuing to Kenya. I counted my cash and determined that I might have enough to get me through the first day. My usual strategy is to minimize risk by carrying only a small amount of starter cash. Upon arrival at any destination I locate an ATM and obtain local currency. It’s usually the most cost effective method, minimizes fees and the possibility of theft or misplacing cash. I had reservations for the first night at a hotel that was located near the local airport that I would utilize the following early morning. My reservation was confirmed so the front desk was expecting me. They were also expecting that I would pay. This became my first challenge as I knew that I needed to conserve any remaining cash I had with me.  The time difference now worked to my advantage as I was able to call my office when I arrived in Kenya. The hotel was kind enough to allow my office to call in a credit card number to pay for my room. Success! I would have shelter for the first night.

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Early the next morning the hotel shuttle took me to the regional airport. A portion of the cash I conserved from the previous night was used to pay the driver. The prepaid flight from Nairobi to Amboseli was on a 14 seat plane and the view of the open space of the Kenyan plains below was a welcome distraction. I and the other passengers arrived to find our future safari guides and vehicles waiting to take us to our respective lodges. I had forgotten that I was expected to pay Game Park fees upon arrival. They could not add it to my room bill because it was a government imposed fee. I explained my situation as sincerely as possible. Multiple conversations between my future driver/guide and the main office of my intended destination, the Serena Lodge, and the Park Ranger, transpired as they negotiated the liability I presented. Perhaps it was my honest approach, but soon I was on my way to the park resort. My driver, James had paid the park fees on my behalf. Upon arrival at the Amboseli Lodge, the scene replayed itself like a summer rerun. I told and retold the story of how I arrived on their doorstep with no way to pay as each staff member declined to make a decision and referred me to the next person in charge. Eventually, they took me at my word and I was given a room and invited to the main dining room for lunch in preparation for the afternoon Safari. I knew that my intention to pay was honest, but no one else could be sure of that. It says a lot about the Kenyan people, each and every one, who treated me with respect and the courtesy due any paying customer, even without a guarantee.  Still, I needed a solution. After two days on safari I would be returning to the city of Nairobi for several nights. My hotel was prepaid and some meals were provided at the convention center but I would be without any cash for beverages or any other expenses.

The best option and likely only opportunity to have my cards successfully reach me would be while I was in the city. My staff did the sleuth work to find the best way to expedite a shipment to Nairobi. The window of opportunity would definitely close after I left for the next safari lodge in the Masai Mara. We devised a strategy. First, I needed to get my credit cards to the agency. My super hero of a pet sitter agreed to go to my house, retrieve my cards and bring them to my office. Second, it had been determined that Federal Express was the only shipper that could guarantee a two day shipment to Nairobi. Third, lacking a Federal Express account, my staff had to locate a Fed Ex shipper that would accept the time sensitive mission. The Embassy Travel crew went above any expectation and my cards were finally on their way.  They say big things come in small packages and seeing the Fed Ex envelope in my hotel room was epic. I am not ashamed to say that I did a happy dance when I saw the familiar faces of my cards. If you’re wondering about the final tally, it could have been worse…

$209.30 long distance calls

26.52 text messages after my staff reminded me that I was running up a heck of a phone bill

122.75 shipping charges plus unlimited stress on both my part and those in my office.

Total: $358.57 – Perhaps a small price to learn a valuable lesson. Best words of advice when travelling: “Don’t leave home without it”.

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