Monday, July 23, 2012

Post-Pack Out Reflections

If you've been following my incessant Facebook posts over the last few days, you'll already know how pack out went.  Because, really, during the pack out itself there is little to do except sit on the compute and write Facebook status updates.  Or at least that's been my experience thus far.  I did manage to write and post two overdue blogs too!  Only one travel post left :-).

All in all this pack out went well.  It was far less frustrating and overwhelming and confusing than either of my two previous ones (which were both overall  positives but with a few hiccups), partly because of my preparations and partly because it does get easier with experience.

They movers arrived an hour early (amazing!) and had my UAB and storage packed within two hours.  When they first arrived they tried to spread out and go to different rooms.  I told the crew chief there was only one of me and we needed to be systematic, and he seemed to get it right away.  I didn't ship very much UAB on purpose.  I want to add things into it in DC in the event that my additional HHE shipment is not authorized.  It was either 64 lbs or 64 kgs - I think kg but am not sure.  My storage shipment needed to be at least 500 lbs to qualify (or is it 250? I can never remember), and it was 541.  Amazing!

Then the HHE started.  I let them fan out into different rooms after giving instructions on what not to pack.  I had previously carved out four safe areas - one closet for my baggage and one for my welcome kit; under the kitchen sink for partly-used cleaning supplies and a few paper products; and the bathroom for cats and their gear.  Signs on the appropriate doors worked very well.  The cats were NOT pleased about being locked in the bathroom for the better part of two days, but it was better than having them underfoot. 

After about three hours the crew chief told me they'd only be working till 2pm.  I expected a shortened day for Ramadan, but that was even shorter than I anticipated.  They ran out of packing cartons about 1:30 and spent the remaining time wrapping dishes and valuables in bubble wrap and paper.  By the time they left I felt pretty confident things were going to proceed smoothly the next day.

I let the cats out once they left, who relished the opportunity to conquer every box pile and proclaim themselves kings of the towers.  They also were a bit clingy, insisting on sitting on my chest whenever I sat down.  I had a makeshift dinner of microwave popcorn, which absolutely hit the spot, and tried to get some sleep.

This morning the crew arrived right on time and set right in to work.  Yesterday I'd estimated they had packed about 2/3 of the house, so I anticipated the rest going quickly.  That was not to be.  Maybe there was more than I realized of what was left, but it took a long time.  I made periodic rounds to see how things were going and to clear areas.  At one point I realized I could not find any large box-like structures that looked like my IKEA bookcases.  I did see several little box-like structures that might contain former IKEA bookcases.  When I inquired, my fears were confirmed.  I don't quite know why they decided to take apart four large bookcases (former movers had kept them intact), but they did.  Frankly, the thought of trying to reassemble these in Kampala made me a little queasy.  Luckily they read my horrified face and immediately began reassembling.  I would say the whole process set us back at least an hour.

About 1pm I started resigning myself to the reality of another day of packing out.  There were still a few things to be packed, and no boxes had been moved out.  But then things got moving pretty quickly.  The crew chief had spent the morning labeling boxes, inventorying them, and weighing them, so that was pretty much already done.  One guy finished the last of the packing while the other two started hauling boxes.  I got hold of the weights page and input them into a spreadsheet to see the damage.  I estimated 100 boxes at an average of 50 lbs per box for a total of 5,000 lbs before I started.  All told, it was 105 boxes at an average of 44 lbs for a total of just under 4,600 lbs.  Not bad!  Granted it's a lot of stuff, but for a while I was afraid I'd go over the allotment (7,200 lbs).

It took until about 3:30, but they got all the boxes out.  They had forgotten one shelf of games, but that was easily remedied and sent on its way.  I have to hand it to this crew - they did a great job.  Especially considering it's Ramadan.  And HOT outside.  They were the same ones who delivered my HHE almost two years ago.  Once again, though, I think some incoming FSOs to Saudi should get Tagalog training.  It would have helped me immensely over the two days!

The boxes are gone, the cats are free once again, and I am unpacking my suitcases so I can live for the next week.  It feels empty in here, but in a nice way.  It's really real that I'm leaving.  A friend said yesterday on Facebook that a strange phenomenon is knowing you're going to miss a place you can't wait to leave.  And that really sums up how I feel.  I am looking forward to leaving Saudi in many ways, but I'll miss my comfortable life here, my great colleagues and friends, and my job.  Very bittersweet.  Saudi's an odd place.  While you're here you know you're living with very different rules and customs, but it doesn't really hit you until you leave how much that impacts you.  I understand how and why people stay here for decades. 

I will surely reflect more on finishing my first tour in the week to come, but right now I need to get ready to party, Ramadan style!  Iftar, here I come!

Meandering in Muscat

Since I was in training I knew I wanted to visit Oman.  I was fascinated by the links with East Africa, the purported difference in the pace of life from the rest of the Gulf countries, and the spectacular scenery.  I kept putting off a visit, knowing it was always there, until I realized I'd better book it or forget it on this tour.

I booked my flight and booked in at the luxurious al-Wada hotel at the Shangri-la's Bar al-Jissah Resort.  The room was at least $100 more per night than I'd ever paid for a hotel in my life, but I justified it as a weekend to escape and relax and celebrate my 30th birthday.  (Easy to say then, but as I wince when I pay down my credit card balance this week I decide it will need to be a while before I indulge quite this much again.)

A few days before I was to leave, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia died.  His wishes were to be buried in Mecca, and the court was in Jeddah for the summer.  This meant a big U.S. visit, and soon.  And we were short-staffed as it was.  As it began looking more and more likely that I'd need to be in town for the visit, I changed my flight and hotel to go one day later, amazingly with no change fees.  It turned out to be a good move, as the Defense Secretary and company arrived for a whirlwind condolence visit.

Anyway, leaving a day later didn't make it any less wonderful.  I arrived in Muscat in the early morning hours of Friday and got to the hotel about 1:30am.  Check-in was efficient and pleasant, and I ate some snacks from the included minibar and fell into bed.  I woke in time to breakfast that morning, a wonderfully elegant affair with a cold buffet and entrees made to order.  I thoroughly enjoyed the smoothie of the day idea, too!

After showering and getting dressed I set off to explore the resort.  Consisting of three hotels on a large campus, the resort is expansive.  I had a couple of hours before my spa appointment, so I wandered around.  I checked out the pool and explored the beach area and then checked in with the travel coordinator.  I decided to do a half day city tour the next day, as I wanted to see at least a little bit of Muscat while I was there.  I finally made my way to the spa, which was as well-appointed as any I've ever visited.  My afternoon package was four hours of pampering in my own idyllic treatment villa, and I emerged feeling revitalized.  I took a golf cart ride over to the heritage village, which was quite underwhelming.  I'm not sure whether it was because it was Friday, or summer, or still under construction, but there were no Omani artisans displaying their trades in the courtyard and only a few stores.  I bought a few silver pendants and meandered my way back to the hotel, checking out a few restaurants along the way but deciding to order room service and watch movies.  It was perfect.

The next morning I breakfasted early (another smoothie!) and met my tour guide in the hotel lobby.  We headed north toward Muscat, and I got my first daylight views of the spectacular scenery.  We started at the Grand Mosque, which was an absolutely amazing experience.  The grandeur and beauty and opulence of the mosque is phenomenal, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the detail and art and furnishings. 

We continued on to the fish market and the vegetable market.  We wandered through Muttrah Souq, but I was too hot to think about bargaining.  Though I did see some nice embellished wooden doors...  Oh well. 

Our next stop was the Sultan's Palace.  Sultan Qaboos has ruled Oman since 1970 and is predominantly beloved by the people.  He has been generous with infrastructure, education, and economic development.  The country has transformed since the time of his father's rule. 

We glimpsed two of the city's old forts, which are closed to the public.  All very beautiful and picturesque.  We stopped at Beit al-Zubair museum, which had some interesting exhibits, particularly clothing and jewelry and khanjars from the different areas of Oman.  Our last stop was a viewpoint looking out the Arabian Gulf with the Old City in the foreground.  Muscat is gorgeous.  But next time I visit it will be during the winter.  I couldn't believe how HOT it was.  And humid.  It was entirely more potent than Jeddah, by far.  Amazing. 

Arriving back at the hotel, I was still full from breakfast so had a leisurely afternoon nap.  I woke in time to visit the Turtle Ranger's presentation, and he advised me to meet him in an hour at the al-Wada private beach to check on a nest.  Turtles use the beaches at the Shangri-la as nesting grounds throughout the year, and the resort takes protecting them seriously.  I had registered to be called if any turtle activity happened during the night, but it was a slow weekend, apparently.  I made my way down (and down, and down, and down) to my hotel's private beach, wishing in hindsight that I'd changed into beach clothes for a swim, and waited.  Mohammed the Turtle Ranger met me there and dug up a nest that was due to hatch.  After inspecting the eggs, he decided it had a little bit more incubating to do and reburied it, complete with sign advising people to steer clear. 

I waded in the water a bit, really wishing I'd changed, and photographed a group of crabs on the rocks.  I headed back over to the heritage village after that and bought two Kashmiri rugs, something I'd been thinking about for a while.  The store owner remembered me from the day before and was super helpful and generous with prices. 

After arriving back at the hotel with my purchases (which are displayed on Facebook - friend me to see them, if you haven't already; it's too time-consuming to load them to Blogger right now), I again debated whether to eat in or out.  I opted for room service again, which is one of my favorite indulgences when I travel!

The next morning I breakfasted in style once again and took my time packing and getting ready.  I took a taxi from the resort to the airport and checked in for my flight.  Or tried to.  Somehow, when my travel agent changed the booking, the return flight didn't get confirmed.  So I was going to be standby, even though there were 7+ empty seats.  I finally talked my way into one of the seats and checked my luggage.  Crisis averted!  I browsed the few kiosks at the airport, grabbed a sandwich, and waited for my flight to open.  Unremarkable flight back, thankfully, and I got home and in bed at a decent hour. 

I really enjoyed Muscat but will definitely go at a different time of year next time.  There's so much to do and see - I'd love to drive around and also see Salalah. 

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

One of the mosque's five minarets and a gorgeous courtyard

Swarovski crystal chandelier in the main prayer hall

Carpet in the main prayer hall - took hundreds of women several years to make it!

Gorgeous colors and detail

Old Muscat

Sultan's Palace and forts in view

Sultan's Palace

Royal crest

One of the forts

View from my hotel :-)

My hotel

Such a gorgeous setting!

Looking out over the expansive resort

View from my hotel room

my hotel's private beach

Beach at sunset


Turtle nest sign

Lots of turtle nests!

Dubai - Day 3

I woke up on my last full day in Dubai with aching feet.  Maybe I should have saved the massage for today...  No matter.  I had a quick breakfast of dinner leftovers and headed to the spa for an indulgent facial.  I emerged an hour later with blissfully soft skin - but still with aching feet.

I decided to indulge in an open-top bus tour, as the places I still wanted to see were along the route.  Apparently I have bad luck with open-top bus tours (remember London's super cold and rainy experience?) as it was entirely too hot to stand being in the open air for too long.  As it was Friday, many of the stops in Deira and Bur Dubai were closed, which was just as well.  I had heard great things and the heritage villages and museums, but I didn't necessarily feel the need to experience them today.  The first part of the tour was mostly for scenic and orientation purposes.  I got off at the exchange point and switched to the other tour line for some stop-and-go action.  The highlight was seeing the beaches along the coast and getting great views of the Burj al-Arab, the iconic sail-shaped hotel, purported to be 7 stars.  I had considered having tea there so I could get a glimpse of the interior, but it didn't fit into the plan this time.

My first stop was at Souq Madinat Jumeirah, a purpose-built indoor souq near to some of the big-ticket hotels and resorts.  I wanted to go there primarily to see if I could grab lunch at Trader Vic's after the previous day's disappointment.  Unfortunately, I arrived at about 3pm, when they were serving only a limited bar snack menu.  Disappointed again, I 'settled' for mussels and pomme frites at a Belgian restaurant.  Better frites, not as good mussels as my first outing.

I actually enjoyed the souq's offerings more than I anticipated and bought a few small art pieces.  I am kicking myself now for not taking the time to peruse some watercolor prints.  Oh well, I had an open-top bus to catch.

The bus made its way onto Palm Jumeirah and down to Atlantis, which was fascinating to see.  Another trip for another day! 

I left the bus at Mall of the Emirates, intending to visit Ski Dubai.  Then I walked inside.  Not only was it as labyrinthine as Dubai Mall, but it seemed that much of the population had the same idea.  It was PACKED.  I finally made my way to a viewing area for the ski village but gave up on finding the entrance.  I've seen snow before.  I tried the movie theater for a diversion and a way to put my feet up, but there was nothing that I wanted to see starting anytime soon.  I tried to figure out where the taxi rank was but found the exit to the metro first.  Perfect!  I thought.  I'd head to Dubai Mall and see a movie there and head back to the hotel from there.  Except that the metro was quite a hike from the mall itself.  And then it was a 10 minute wait for a train.  And then the train was packed.  And then when I got to the Dubai Mall stop, I realized I had no earthly idea where the mall was in relation to the metro stop.  A bus pulled up at that moment that said "Dubai Mall", and I got on.  Along with about 100 other people.  We finally made it to the mall, which seemed quite a way from the metro station, and I sighed with relief at having some idea where I was, having mastered this mall the day before.

The cinema was packed, but I managed to get one of the last seats to see Men in Black III.  Perfect.  I ordered some nachos, which ended up being dinner, but they were perfect.  The movie was pretty good - I really do like the series - and it felt heavenly to put my feet up.

After the movie I found the taxi rank, where the wait was twice as long as the night before.  Amazing!  I finally reached the front and headed back to my hotel, where I put on my compression socks to soothe my aching feet and collapsed into bed.

I had a leisurely morning on Saturday, breakfasting at the hotel and then packing.  I got to the airport and checked in without much fuss.  The wait was bearable, as was the flight.  Hasta la vista Dubai!  Thanks for a great weekend - I'll be back!

Views of the older sections of Dubai

I am a bit obsessed with the awesomeness of these traditional wind towers.

See another one here

And more. I think this is the heritage village in Bur Dubai.

More dhows on the Creek.

Burj al-Arab

Wind towers built into Souq Madinat Jumeirah

Another Burj view

Gorgeous landscaping at Souq Madinat Jumeirah

The lushness of the grass in sweltering heat amazed me.

Burj al-Arab

First glimpse of Atlantis

Atlantis in all its pink glory!

Wind towers on Palm Jumeirah

Part of the Dubai skyline

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Another Post, Another Pack Out

All righty.  It's pack out time!  UAB is packed and ready to go, storage is packed and taken away, and they just started on HHE.  But since it's Ramadan they're only working six hours a day (and that translates into only 4.5 packing hours a day, apparently).  So this will take two days for sure and possibly three, though I completely understand why.  I am trying to keep the A/C on full blast so they don't get hot and dehydrate themselves too much in the process.  They seem a good, conscientious, and efficient crew, so I'm satisfied.  The cats are unhappily locked in the bathroom.  I am taking surreptitious sips of water when nobody is looking, but the banana I had for breakfast isn't quite cutting it. 

I was remarkably calm in the hours leading up to pack out, making me wonder if I was doing it wrong.  But I was more prepared for this one than for my previous two, even if it didn't seem that way in the weeks and days leading up to the big event.  I am a bit afraid I have more than 7200 lbs, despite purging probably 1,000lbs of trash, clothes, and paper over the last few weeks.  It's probably closer to 4,000-5,000 lbs, which is still a lot.  Nothing I can do now but wait and see.

My hope is that I will get through writing Dubai, Muscat, and Taif travel posts in the next two days.  We'll see.

For now, back to supervising the process!