Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Return to Abu Dhabi


We’re back in Abu Dhabi for ten weeks, but this time is different. Abu Dhabi is the same – mostly – but we’re not living in the apartment at Al Seef Compound any more. This time, we’re staying in Traders Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, part of the Shangri-La complex “between the bridges” on Maqtaa Creek, the waterway separating the island of Abu Dhabi from the mainland to the north. Traders is the less pricey (4 stars instead of 5) counterpart adjacent to the Shang.

Since we moved back home to Nevada, Mark has returned to work in Abu Dhabi a couple of times, for a few weeks in May, and again in August. He’s been staying at Traders. When we checked in, the Filipino hotel staff greeted us with big smiles: “Hello, Mr. Mark! You are back! You are now a Diamond Elite Golden Circle member! Please choose three check-in gifts.” A bottle of white wine, two diet cokes, and … I guess we’ll take the Cup-o-Noodles. Wait – why didn’t we pick the Arabic sweets!? Hey, we were just coming off of a 16-hour plane ride and 90-minute drive from Dubai. The diet Cokes and noodles actually sounded kind of appealing, and it was too soon for Arabic sweets after after the food on the plane.

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Speaking of the plane, I have a story. And it’s Mark’s suggestion that I write it. He wants the story told. I’m not sure why, perhaps a misplaced idea of vindication or something, although I’m not sure if this will put him in a good light or not. You be the judge.
But first, I’m generally not a complainer; I really don’t like it. Sometimes I think I don’t complain enough. I avoid reviewing hotels and restaurants for Trip Advisor or Booking.com because I don’t like to criticize places. When something isn’t quite perfect I find, in my mind, a way to excuse it. I don’t want to be feel like a whiner. Or a nit-picker. But I don’t see this as a virtue because often, I don’t realize that something is bothering me until it’s too late. Then, I begin to resent. Why didn’t I speak up? Who’s to blame? Who knew, except for me? Why didn’t I just say what I was thinking, ask for what I wanted? Demand it, if necessary? Sometimes I do, sometimes not. It’s a bit uneven, I suppose.

So, Mark bought me an Economy Class ticket on the same San Francisco to Dubai flight that he was already booked on by his company’s travel agent except he was in Business Class. My ticket cost about $1500, paid for by us, and his was about $8,000 on the company.  Yes, that’s a difference of about $5,500. Of course, for that kind of money, I wasn’t about to whine about not getting business. And since I was traveling with him and he is a Gold Emirates Member, I get all the same preferred check in, pre-boarding, lounge access and seat choice privileges. Not too bad except for the lower class, smaller space and inferior seat. It’s pretty equivalent travel to Mark’s eye, and mine too. But still … (Cue the chorus: “First world problems!”)

Bulkhead seat in economy classOver the next few weeks, as we were anticipating the trip, I murmured things like, “I don’t mind. Those seats are pretty good.” … “They do have foot rests that come up, although they don’t fully recline.” … “Even in economy the food is good. And the booze is free.” … “I have my noise-canceling headphones.” .. “I’ll just try to sleep most of the way.”
Mark said things like, “We’ll get to the check-in counter when it opens, and get you a bulkhead seat.” And, “Remember, you can get plastered in the Business Class lounge and not even remember the flight! How about that!”

Then, a couple of days before our flight, I got an email from Emirates. They were offering me an upgrade to Business Class for $1000. It would be available until 24 hours before the flight.

I showed it to Mark, but he wasn’t impressed. “You’re already getting into the lounge, and we can get you a good seat. The upgrade is  only for one way.” I would still have a coach flight back. We didn’t need to spend the money. But I didn’t really agree. I mean, hadn’t I just the other day won a thousand dollar Royal Flush video poker jackpot? In fact, hadn’t we won several jackpots during the past six  months we’ve been home? But wait, that’s another story … and I don’t write about our gambling habits.

DSC00802I let it go. I was too busy to think about it because we were enjoying our last week before leaving for the UAE on vacation in Sonoma, California, reuniting with friends who had also lived in Abu Dhabi. Yes, coincidentally, we had planned this vacation way last winter, and it happened to back right up against our trip. We were spending the week with Terry and Pete and 4 other couples visiting wineries, drinking great wines, cooking great food, all in a spectacular setting in a private villa on a horse ranch and vineyard. I just couldn’t be bothered with thinking about the flight.

Couldn’t be bothered, that is, until Sunday, the last day, when all the others realized that Mark and I were going back to Abu Dhabi on Monday. Then, the conversation turned to which airport, which airline. Three of the other couples were also flying out of SFO – on Sunday Linda’s husband Fred was going back to Abu Dhabi, Linda was going home to Boston, and Samina and Trevor were flying to London. Terry and Pete were going back to Florida later in the week.

DSC00715I mentioned, apropos of the topic of conversation, that Mark had a business class ticket but mine was economy. Then suddenly, I felt this weird little awkwardness, and I realized: There are people in this room who NEVER fly coach. And then, another thought: If they did, it would be together. They would never put their wife in coach while they flew business. And then: If they even tried, there would probably be hell to pay. Finally: Am I doing something wrong here? I think I am doing something wrong.

But nobody actually said anything, and the moment quickly passed, as awkward pauses do. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, with hopes to reunite again, somewhere in the world, in a couple of years.

That evening, we met up with our sailing friends at Richmond Yacht Club in Point Richmond, California, all of whom are also pretty well traveled. After dinner, and several bottles of wine shared among a dozen or so friends, we were getting ready to say goodbye and the conversation turned to our flight. Before I could think to stop myself, I was telling everyone the story about the upgrade.
The crowd’s condemnation was swift: “Oh my God! You’re letting your wife fly in coach while you’re in business?” “Aren’t you giving up your seat to her? Won’t they let you?” “You’re letting him get away with this?” Everyone joined in with his or her two cents’ worth. It was unanimous. Mark deserved public shaming.

_39Then Judy grabbed me by the arm (anyone who knows Judy can certainly picture this) and said, “Annie, you have a credit card, don’t you? Why didn’t you just take the upgrade? Why’d you have to ask him? How does he have that power?!” And so I, too was being shamed. But it was too late to take the deal; our flight was leaving in less than 24 hours. Finally Mark said, defensively, almost challenging me, “Well, maybe you’ll still get an upgrade …” Oh yeah, right. He’s already told me he checked, and my ticket was not eligible for a mileage upgrade.

So now I finally realized that, yes, I was mad. Actually, I was hurt. Wasn’t I worth the $1000 upgrade? It was more fun to fly together. Why did he have to be so cheap sometimes? What was the point? This was our last trip over there – inshallah.

But there was nothing I could say that the others hadn’t already said better. I was mad at Mark, but I was just as mad at myself. Why didn’t I just take the upgrade? I didn’t take it because a thousand bucks used to be a ton of money to me. It’s still a ton of money to a lot of people. And I had wanted Mark to say, “Yeah, that’s great, let’s get the upgrade so you can be in business with me.” But now, he kept saying things like, “I guess I’m in trouble. I screwed up.” And all I could say was … nothing. I admit it. I was now playing it passive aggressive.

20141006_134521So there we were in the Emirates Lounge. We had checked in early and I had a bulkhead seat. Mark was being extra solicitous, getting me glasses of champagne, encouraging me to have a plate of seared ahi, chilled shrimp, Indian curry. Then, in the jetway, as I prepared to head to the back of the plane, he said something like, “I guess everybody thinks I’m a big turd.”

He felt guilty. Good. “Well,” I said. “You’ve been shamed.” I’ll be honest, by that time I could hardly look at him. “Bye,’ he said, “see you later, Honey.” Yeah. Right. Bye.

The bulkhead seats on the Boeing 777 have more leg room, yes. And that’s why bulkhead seats are always occupied by families with infants. They have little bassinettes that they hang on the bulkhead for the babies to sleep in. But the babies don’t always sleep, and when they aren’t sleeping they are crying. When they aren’t crying, they are screeching.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE babies! But. There was a baby in my row that was screeching, and it was the loudest, most painfully intense noise I have ever heard a baby, or for that matter, a Sawzall on metal, make. I felt sorry for the parents already. As the plane filled I broke out my noise-canceling headphones, cranked up the music on my iPad, closed my eyes, and tried to relax.

About ten minutes later, I sensed that someone was standing in front of me.  A flight attendant was bending toward me, speaking, and I pulled my headphones aside. “Mrs. Thomas?” Yes. “Your husband has upgraded you to Business Class. He said that he did not do this he is in a lot of trouble.” I admit that, as I gathered my belongings, I felt … not surprised.
She led me forward on the plane, to a seat at the very front of business – there were lots of empty seats! Then she moved a sheepish Mark to join me. He told me he’d used his miles for the upgrade. Was it a lot of miles? “Yes. Two tickets to Milan.” I didn’t know we were planning a trip to Milan.

I settled in, and the flight attendant brought the menu and wine list. Veuve Clicquot champagne, top shelf liquors, five-course dinner, hot and cold “light bites,” and full breakfast, with fruit, yogurt and four main course choices. I’ve a feeling we’re not in coach any more.


After dinner (seared beef filet for me) they brought a mattress for my reclining seat – it’s more like a quilted pad. Headphones on, and (at Mark’s suggestion) I watched “True Detective.” Sometime during the fourth episode, I reclined my seat completely and fell asleep.

One of the neat things about the Emirates Boeing 777 is the lighting. Simulated stars in the ceiling encourage sleep, and after a few hours, “dawn” breaks and the light goes from dark blue to purple to pink, and finally to full “daylight.” Then they serve breakfast. I never saw the “light bites,” I guess that happened while I was sleeping.

So over the course of the 16-hour flight I got a pretty good night’s sleep, and had dinner and breakfast on a reasonably normal schedule except that breakfast was about 4:00 a.m. West Coast time. Then we landed, and it was 7:00 p.m. and dark. Weird.

But it worked out the next morning because the breakfast buffet at Traders has dishes that seem, to me, more like dinner than breakfast: Indian curries with rice, Asian noodles, sir-fried beef, couscous … or, you can get eggs, bacon (beef bacon, that is) and all the other regular breakfast items.

But that’s another story, which is coming: what it’s like to live here, leave, and come back – this time, to hotel life between the bridges with some, if not all, of your friends still around.

Was it worth whatever miles it cost to upgrade me? Oh, yes. To me, it was huge. For some reason, I enjoyed that flight the most, and slept the best, of any so far.

Note: the photos of the seats, flight attendants and baby are copied from the Internet.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Leaving Abu Dhabi - Everything is Temporary

A month to the day after we left Abu Dhabi, Mark boarded an Airbus a380, on his way back. When will I return?

When expats arriving in Abu Dhabi first meet one another, they always ask, “How long have you been here?” And then, “Where do you live?” It’s an interesting topic because there, everything is stunningly new, shiny, and sky-high, with panoramic views across the city and the Arabian Gulf.

They may live on the 70th floor of a brand-new tower on Reem Island, or in a great location on the water like the Shangri-La, with a view of the Grand Mosque or the Ritz Carlton from the infinity pool.
Or maybe, in a neighborhood of spacious villas with lots of other expat families, and their kids and dogs.
Or like us, in an apartment compound with a mini-mall under construction a few feet away.

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One practical reason for these questions is that  you want to make friends with people who live nearby. The American Women’s Network coffees help people who live near one another find each other. It’s easier to socialize with people who live close, so you can walk home from the party. Or take a short taxi ride.

Next, everyone asks, “How long will you be here?” What makes this question so redundant and absurd is that nobody ever knows, and the asker, who knows this, asks anyway, and so it always ends: “Well, we think (some length of time,) but we’re not sure. Probably at least (shorter time.) It depends on (source of job uncertainty or level of frustration.)”

Yes, you never know. It’s the UAE. Ha-ha. Anything can happen. You meet people and, the next thing you know, they‘re gone.


So cliché, but we all found ourselves saying those words. I had that conversation dozens of times, if not a hundred. Leaving is a topic that most people are thinking about even as they arrive, and continue to think about on a daily basis. It colors the experience there. I knew from the beginning that our days in Abu Dhabi were numbered, and I wanted to get my feet under me as soon a possible, and understand this crazy place, because anything could happen. I wanted to experience everything, starting asap.

One of the first things I went to, looking to meet some people, was a chocolate event at the Fairmont Bab al Bahr. I got lost trying to find the hotel, even though it was only 5 minutes away from our apartment. I arrived a half hour late, but not too late to feel welcome and get my goodie bag with the apron and several types of chocolate. We learned about chocolate’s history and geography, and how to make a chocolate lava cake. Which I have not yet made, even though I used to love to make desserts. I was known for them, in fact.

Anyway. That day was important. There was a person there who I noticed because she had a big camera and was skulking around taking photos. She is in the striped top in the photo above. (I am next to the chef, because I am drawn to men who wield power. Or tall men in hats?) I realized that I had met her a few days before, and I had her phone number. Sensing a kindred spirit, I resolved to call her. And that’s how it works. You click, and from there you develop a clique of people who live near you and you can do things with. So that’s how Terry and I met. And I got my souvenir Fairmont apron.

Ritz-Carlton 001

“When are you leaving?” That question became part of every conversation, because we were always leaving each other. Each time we got together, the talk migrated to a vacation – always to some enviable and tantalizing destination like Beijing or Bangkok, Singapore or the Seychelles, Tuscany or Turkey.

Or we talked about when we were going home to see family and when we were coming back. Home might be Australia, Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, Oregon or Washington. Then finally, inexorably, someone would ask someone, “So, when are you … leaving?” Because the answer to that question was always news. It was news if it was still unknown, it was news if it was decided, it was news if it had changed, and it was news, especially, if the answer was the same as last time.

Al Seef 006

And it was big news when the tickets were bought and the packing had commenced. Which often seemed to happen overnight.

So, what was it like, living over there? Well, here are some pieces of the real story. Without going into specific details, let me just say that working in the UAE is rife with uncertainty. There are so many expats there, and you never know why, exactly, they are there. Is it because they were recruited to a golden opportunity, selected from a field of top candidates? That was what I originally envisioned. But then I heard a Brit utter the unflattering acronym, FILTH. What’s that? “Failed In London, try Hong Kong.” So … there is a certain percentage of people who are there because they didn’t succeed elsewhere? And then, it didn’t take long to realize that sometimes, in fact often, the golden opportunity you think you are seizing has its tarnished elements. I knew of many situations where people came thinking they could accomplish something, only to find out, once they arrived, how different things were than what they thought. Or, that their benefits weren’t what they thought, or their contract had somehow changed, or was not being honored. It’s not America. Things happen more slowly, and often not at all. Or not in the way, and on the timeline, that they had envisioned.

Like us, for example. Maybe I had delusions of grandeur, but the second-floor apartment that the company provided us wasn’t as nice as I had envisioned, mainly because there was no view and no outdoor space, which I craved from day one. And the furniture, picked out by someone (male) in the company, was uncomfortable. The kitchen was dark, with no dishwasher. The oven control broke the first time we tried to use it. And the few lamps and other items of décor were – well, there is no other way to say it – BUTT UGLY. Oh, and there were more casserole dishes than plates, and I don’t even make casseroles. And we were given dozens of wine glasses, more than even we could use, but no coffee cups. I could go on, but you get it.

But it’s hard to complain when your employment agreement includes housing and utilities, a car complete with insurance and gas card, medical insurance, and business class flights at the beginning and end of your employment. Yes, I saw lots of people whose housing was, in my opinion, nicer than our apartment. But, did I really want to live in a tower? Not really. In a resort hotel? It had its good and bad features. And many people didn’t have a company car. We had one, because Mark needed it to get on base, although he carpooled often. And I liked our lap pool, just steps away, where I could swim in peace during the day.

We arrived in fall 2011 and settled in, but right from the start, we were talking exit strategy. At first, Mark thought we should leave the UAE at the end of December, 2013. Just make a clean break at the end of the year when the Abu Dhabi Cruiser Association sailing season was on hiatus for the holidays. Then, he suggested late January, 2014, so we could take advantage of more paid holidays and avoid the rush of travelers that time of year. In the UAE, there are no government holidays between the end of January and June – which is a very long dry spell, holiday-wise. Then Mark decided – with finality – that he wanted to leave at the end of his contract on March 31st.

But then, a certain high-ranking Emirati Army official with whom Mark is a favorite, and whom I shall call the “Customer,” got wind of the fact that Mark was planning on leaving, and he simply said, “You cannot leave. I forbid it!”

Forbid it? A contract is a contract, right? And when it’s over, it’s over. Right? Well, that is true. Mark’s contract was with the American company, and they accepted his resignation. However, the Emirati Customer was of a different mind. He suggested to Mark that he could, with one phone call, prevent him from leaving the UAE. For weeks, nay months, Mark talked about this as if it could really happen, and I always laughed. We would be detained at the airport? I couldn’t quite believe it. But, as time went by, after every casual meeting with the Customer, Mark would come home from work and repeat the story, and I began to believe it was true. Really? Our bags packed, we’re ready to go, and we’re not leaving on a jet plane? It’s called wasta. Clout, Influence. The ability to make things happen. Or stop things from happening.

Although it was surely more bluster than threat, it did make Mark reconsider his plans. The truth is that he had very mixed feelings about leaving the Emiratis that he's been working so closely with, has built a relationship with, and who still need his unique experience and expertise on the project.

So, Mark made a deal. He extended his contract for another two months. The first month he was on leave, taking care of some medical needs and business at home. Now he’s back in the UAE, working on base for a week, then taking off on a business trip to Strasbourg, Paris, and some place in Austria, visiting suppliers with the Customer. Then our hope is to negotiate a contract extension through this year, where he will provide technical expertise but not be working in the UAE full time.

Airbus a380 015So when we got to the airport in Dubai, ready to board the Airbus a380 to fly home in business class, with the cocktail lounge waiting for us, we didn’t feel like we were leaving permanently, but we felt like we were almost sneaking out. Would we really be going back there? Technically, we are still residents of the UAE because our resident visas are still valid, as long as we return within 6 months. October 8th, for me. Then, my visa expires in December, because it’s only good for three years. After that, I’ll be happy with a 30-day tourist visa.


I’ll be honest. I was really, really ready to come home. I am loving puttering around the house, thinking about painting a wall here, a ceiling there. Buying and installing new kitchen appliances, starting with the new fridge/freezer and dishwasher. Working in the yard, planting shrubs and pulling weeds. Planning to finish the deck, redo the bathrooms.

039 Stitch
I’ve been watching the amazing weather roll in – it’s May, it was 80 degrees last week, and this week it snowed! But the California poppies and purple penstemon are still getting ready to bloom! I spend a lot of time staring out the windows at our amazing views of Job’s Peak, Carson Valley, and Kingsbury Grade.


I find myself watching the jackrabbits, cottontails, mule deer, bluejays, magpies, quail, doves, chipmunks, squirrels, and lizards, all grazing in the yard. I can buy wine at the grocery store if I want to. Eat all the cherries, avocados, and asparagus that I want. I’ve been planting and plucking lettuce, kale, herbs, and onions in my planter box/cage.

But I’m not really ready to never go back to the Middle East, either. I want to return, stay in one of the many fabulous hotels, and take my two grown kids to see the UAE. I want them to see the crazy, insane, magical, futuristic city that is Dubai, with the amazing Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (at least for now) and all the others with their spires, squiggles, twists and tiaras.


And take them to the Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which Mark, I am ashamed to disclose, has yet to visit.

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They would both love to go out into the desert, dune bashing in ATVs. Brian would love to jet-ski and go fishing.

SUP Mangroves 012

Nicole and I could paddle the mangroves together. We could rent boards or kayaks. I want them to see this place that is so, so different from any place we have ever been together, and yet has so much to offer us.


They would see the Arabs in their abayas and kanduras. They would meet our Emirati friends, and have a huge Arab meal while sitting on the floor. They would visit a camel farm. Maybe watch a camel race. They would see what it’s like to drive there.

Concord 006Why didn’t they come and visit us while we were living there? I sometimes wish they had but they didn’t, and for good reasons of which I must remind myself. They are still getting established, and can’t just take off and fly halfway around the world. When I went home to visit, I could see how involved they were with their own lives and how happy they were to see me – but it was hard to carve out the time, even on their turf.

Concord 007

They didn’t have college breaks and weren’t between jobs, like some of my friends whose kids came and went with what seemed great frequency. And to be honest, my son Brian doesn’t much like flying. Will he even want to come all the way to the Middle East, given the opportunity? We’ll see.

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For my granddaughter, a trip to Disneyland with her best friend was a much better option.

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I think, in a way, I needed to discover my UAE before I could show it to them. I wanted to understand this strange, confounding place myself. If they came all the way over there, I wanted to know what to show them. Now, I think I do.

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We miss the wonderful friends we made. Most of the expats have, like us, moved on, and we hope to reunite with them in the USA. We are the Class of 2011-2014. But we were fortunate to have formed some strong bonds with Emiratis, as well. Not many expats have that opportunity. We will stay in touch with them, and I hope to see them again.

I don’t think we’ll ever completely leave. Arabia is now part of us, and we are part of Arabia.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Leap of Faith - Chapter One: Tears and Sandwiches

Dear readers,
I am writing a book. It's about a smart and strong American woman from North Carolina named Cindy Davis, and her dashing and funny Emirati husband, Mohammed Ali. They are real people, and I'm writing their story, in the form of a Reality Novel (I just made up that term.) I've been working on it for about a year and a half, interviewing and getting to know Cindy and Mohammed and their family, researching, and gathering information as I live in and learn about the UAE.

This past week, Cindy met a number of my non-Arab women friends here in the UAE. They are fascinated with her story. So now I'm ready to share some of what I've written, in the hopes that I can get some useful feedback, generate more interest in the book project, and finish it in the coming year. Please, join Cindy and me on this journey.

Chapter One: Tears and Sandwiches

Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let me cry. She just wanted to sit on the floor but no, they wouldn’t let her. Perched in a fancy upholstered chair, she sat with all these people looking at her. They were speaking in Arabic; she had no idea what they were saying. But she knew they were talking about her, whispering, and clucking like birds. Blackbirds. They looked like blackbirds. That made her kind of want to laugh, until she noticed Mohammed’s tiny mother, Zamzam, looking at her warily.

Whenever someone said something or there was a question, Mohammed’s brother Abdul Rahman, the only one who spoke some English, would translate. Mohammed … she could still hardly believe it. Mohammed Ali was her husband. I’m a wife! But I’m still Cindy Davis. And I want to sit on the floor just like them all.

“I don’t want to sit here; I want to sit on the floor,” she told Abdul Rahman. “Why’d I have to sit in this chair?”

“No, no, no,” Abdul insisted. “You are the guest of honor, you are American. You must sit in the chair.”

“American!” the ladies before her repeated it, only they made it sound like Am-er-eeekan. Mohammed had told them, hadn’t he? What had he, actually told them? For that matter, what had he told her? Not much that she could remember. She had vaguely known that women in the Middle East wore long dresses, but these people were dressed in huge black cloaks and head scarves, covering them from head to toe, and some of the older ones even had their faces covered!
Well, then, they surely didn’t know where North Carolina was, or anything about it, but she certainly wasn’t going to try to explain any of that to them. She was from America, half a world away. She was a rare white dove in this flock of blackbirds, a young American bride in blue jeans with white skin and auburn hair.

The trip had taken days. When Cindy’s parents Gladys and Roy drove them from Mocksville to the airport in Charlotte, Roy was silent, but Gladys had cried the whole way. Cindy and Mohammed flew to New York – it was Cindy’s first time on an airplane, first time out of North Carolina! They flew to London. From there, it was another long flight to Dubai. Finally, they drove through some mountains on a brand new road to tiny Khorfakkan, in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates. She was in a place now that had only been a country for about ten years. Most likely none of these ladies had ever even seen an airplane. But they understood this place, and she would have to learn to get along here. They would have to learn to get along, she and them.

It grew dark. Tea and fruit arrived, brought in by a housemaid and set on a small table. The sweetened tea was poured into small glasses from a long-spouted Arabic tea pot. Cindy drank it, and was suddenly exhausted.
 “I want to sit on the floor,” she told Abdul again.

 “No, no,” he again insisted. “You are guest. You must sat in the chair. It is like in America.” He would not be persuaded; they would not be persuaded.

She just wanted to sit among them, start to be one of them. She wanted to be treated no different; so what if she was new? These women were Mohammed’s mother, sister, aunties, cousins, and neighbors. They were her new family.

She longed for Mohammed.

Cindy shook her head, trying to fight it, but she could feel tears coming. Suddenly, it was all too much. The engagement followed by months of separation, the long, uncertain month with not even one letter, and then Mohammed’s sudden return to the US, to get married. There had been a wedding just days ago after a month of hectic planning, the long trip here, and then, after only one day together in this new world, Mohammed had left her and gone off to work at the military base in Abu Dhabi, leaving her under the wing of his relatives. It was Saturday, and he wouldn’t be back until Thursday, and even then just for Friday, the one-day weekend.

Cindy hadn’t slept in two days. She was exhausted and frustrated, she just wanted to go home. And, on top of everything, here was the last thing she wanted. Tears. She was trying to squeeze them back, but they were slipping out from the corners of her eyes. The more Cindy fought them, the stronger they grew. Damn tears. Dear God, please make them stop.

“You are hungry!” Abdul said, seeing her distress. “I will get food.”

“No, no, I’m not hungry! I just want to go home.”

La la! No, no! Come, we go to the hotel. They have American food.”

“No, no, thank you. I don’t want to eat; I want to go home. Please, that’s all I want. Please, just let me go home.” Cindy wanted to go home to her own place, their room in Mohammed’s house. It was her only refuge of peace and privacy, away from the curious eyes, and the words she didn’t yet understand. A place to rest.

But Abdul Rahman would not hear of it. When an Arab decides that his guests must be fed, they shall be fed. So Cindy allowed herself to be driven along Khorfakkan Bay to the only western style hotel in the region. Food was ordered. Too tired to be hungry, jet lagged without even knowing what jet lag was, Cindy watched as a mountain of sandwiches was placed before her. It was enough for a dozen people.

“I don’t know what you like,” Abdul Rahman explained. “So I ordered one of each.”

 “Shukran.” Thank you. Cindy ate a few bites, and then finally, thankfully, it was time to go home.

Sri Lanka Tea Country–Madulkelle

At dawn, a blue mist hovers in the distant mountains. Waking birds begin their songs, as smoke rises from the village below. Suddenly the hills come alive with sound, blending Hindu bells, Buddhist chants, the Muslim call to prayer. Presently, figures appear on the road, moving among tea bushes to take up their places, their bent backs dotting the hillside.
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It was a good thing the predicted rain hadn’t materialized. As we wound uphill, you could cut the uncertainty with a knife. Both Mark and our driver Leslie seemed to think that the hotel we’d booked could not be this far, not on a road this rugged.  But as we passed village after village, easing around water tanks, lorries, and tuk-tuks, we kept seeing tiny signs with arrows: “Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge.”

Keep going, I insisted. Finally, we rounded a curve to see, like an apparition, a white, rounded building perched on a not too distant hillside. “There it is!” Mark was still doubtful but I recognized the tea plantation estate house I’d seen on the website. “There’s the pool! That’s it. I know it. Keep going. Trust me.”

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After the day-long drive from Colombo, it was a great relief to climb out of the car to the greetings of the hotel staff, who were rejoicing to see that we’d made it. They know how difficult the road is, and when guests arrive it’s a victory. They ushered us in, handed us welcome drinks, and in no time we were escorted to our lodging. Meanwhile, they directed Leslie to the driver’s quarters, where he would stay for the two nights we were there.

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From the moment we got to Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge (pronounced model-kelly) I was in absolute heaven. Each lodge – I think there are 18 of them, but we could only see a few, they blend in so well – is a stand-alone tent cabin built on a platform facing Sri Lanka’s distant Knuckles mountain range, which really does look exactly like the knuckles of my hand.

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The surrounding hills are contour planted with row after row of verdant green, uniformly pruned tea bushes. It seemed impossible that a land could look this perfectly manicured. It looked the California wine country in spring, with the fresh green growth, but different. Like it had just been given a haircut with electric clippers.

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The estate house, which is designed as a great room and has the feeling of a large and comfortable home, has a library alcove and a sitting area with a large fireplace where guests gather and chat over a cocktail or glass of wine before dinner, or just relax and read.

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The dining area and outdoor seating on the veranda have views of the gardens, infinity pool, and mountains beyond.

Sri Lanka  (732)The kitchen serves local Sri Lankan dishes made with fresh organic produce grown right next to the estate house. The French director, Philippe, was onsite while we were there, and spoke with me about the hotel’s mission, corporate farming, and GMO. Madulkelle is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, and there are plans underway for another property, designed using permaculture priciples.

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Philippe said, almost apologetically, that the tea production of the property is small; they only have 10 hectares, or about 24 acres, and 10% of it is planted in tea. They just don’t have the land for more; the rest is taken up by the estate house, gardens, pool, paved pathways, and other infrastructure.

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The tent cabins are heavy-duty canvas, with all the amenities – electricity, full bathroom with hot shower, comfortable bed with mosquito netting, in-room coffee and tea. But no internet! And no TV! Only the spectacular views from the balcony, with the world of tea spread out below us. In the morning, we woke up to a view of the mountains, the music of the surrounding villages, and drank our tea and coffee outside. We used the wireless internet in the estate house at breakfast.

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The first morning, I sat on the porch with the binoculars and cameras, looking at the mists and the trees and watching the village directly below come alive. Tea workers live in one or two rooms that are built side by side in rows known as line houses, on land owned by the tea companies.

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A line of women, with white sacks on their backs, moved uphill along the road, and a group of workers, one man and the others women, formed a bucket brigade, passing water to the man who poured it on newly planted tea bushes.

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Then I noticed a movement in the bushes just below me. It was a Toque Macaque, a species of monkey that lives only in Sri Lanka. He seemed to be doing the same thing I was – watching the sunrise and the workers, and reflecting on the goodness of life. Then his fellow troop members arrived for a play session.

Sri Lanka  (559)Despite the small percentage of tea on the property, tea bushes line the pathways and surround the cabins. On our way back from breakfast, we found several tea pickers just outside of our Hornbill tent cabin. They continued picking without a pause, but smiled for my camera. Tea pickers, and tea sorters in the factories, are mostly women, usually several generations from the same family, and are very poor, making about 500 rupees ($4) per day.

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Tea pickers are Hindu Tamils, descendants of Indian Tamils who came to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, during the period of British control in the early 1800’s to work as coffee pickers, until the coffee industry was wiped out by disease around 1870 and quickly replaced by tea.

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They pluck just the top two leaves and bud from the plant.

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Carrying their bags on their backs and picking with both hands, they reach over their heads to place the leaves in the sack. Each worker is paid by the kilo, with a daily target of 15 to 20 kg per day.

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Mark and I both fell in love with this place. So peaceful. A swim in the pool will make you feel like you are on the edge of a mountain. Which, actually you are, at 3,000 feet. The views were otherworldly, the food was beautiful, everything was perfect.

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The best thing of all for us both was that, unlike Africa, we could walk. Anywhere and everywhere. The tea country is riddled with paths, following the contours, cutting through the rows, connecting to each other and the roads. All you have to do is put your feet on the ground and start moving. You are exploring, and the opportunities are limitless

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That morning, we hiked directly uphill from our cabin. Near the road, we found ourselves at the Staff and Driver’s Quarters, and there was Leslie with a beatific smile on his face. “I slept very well! he said. He, like us, would enjoy a relaxing day with the other drivers.

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Up the road, we came to a village. What a colorful world. As we approached I asked, using gestures, if I may take photos, and received nods. At the preschool, one little girl appeared at the door, soon joined by several of her classmates, all saying “Hello! Goodbye! Hello! Goodbye!” That’s about all the English most villagers seemed to know.

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The hotel has a social responsibility program (the sign in this photo has something to do with it) and works with the villages, providing seed money and helping with fundraisers for education and the arts. Philippe admitted to me that the program was growing slowly; everything takes time, and the hotel has only been open for a year.

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The children were so cute in their little uniforms. All school children in Sri Lanka wear European-style uniforms to school except for the Muslim girls, who wear cloaks and head scarves. Overall, the literacy rate  is about 90%; most children in Sri Lanka go to school.

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I climbed the up the road to see the Hindu temple and view the village from above.

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Our afternoon walk took us downhill, where there was a village with a “pharmacy” that Mark wanted to go see. Mind you, this would be nothing like the pharmacy you might go to. Think of a dark, gritty, unorganized shop, in a row of hole-in-the-wall businesses, with a mishmash of mostly unidentifiable items of indiscernible age and provenance … I wondered what he was thinking. Also, he wanted to check out a place called “Madulkelle Club.” Whatever that was.

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Didn’t matter, we never got there. We got ourselves lost in this wonderland, found the waterfall, the laundry pool where a young couple was washing their clothes, got further downhill than we had meant to, completely missing the pharmacy village without realizing it but finding another village, which was named Madulkelle, where the children said, “Hello! Goodbye!” as we walked through.

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Finally, we decided to hail a tuk-tuk. Have I mentioned tuk-tuks yet?

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They are as ubiquitous as the palm trees, the tea bushes, and the stray dogs. Every village seems to have at least one. Every few minutes, even in this seemingly remote place, we could hear the familiar “tuk-tuk” sound as the little three-wheeled vehicle appeared around the bend, hauling schoolchildren or shoppers uphill to their villages.

We hailed one on his way back down. He didn’t quite understand where we wanted to go, mainly because we didn’t know ourselves; we didn’t realize that the village we thought we were going to was now back uphill.

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Didn’t matter. We ended up at the Hatale Tea Factory, where we were given an impromptu tour by the manager. We arrived at the late-afternoon changing of shifts, so the rolling, firing, and grading machines were still.

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Workers were hauling in the day’s pickings, refilling the troughs where the tea leaves are first “withered” removing moisture using the ambient temperature and large fans.

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There are several more steps, including rolling and twisting the leaves using an ingenious rolling machine to bring out the enzymes, then fermenting, firing in a high-tech wood-fueled oven to preserve flavor and color, and grading. The finished tea is packed into paper bags, checked for quality, and transported to the packaging facility.

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We were also introduced to the many types of tea, the main three being black, green, and white. White tea, or “silver tips,” is made using just the single bud of the tea plant, and is rolled by hand and dried in the sun.

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In addition to the factory, Hatale has a museum. Unfortunately it was getting late, and the sun was getting ready to set. We didn’t want to miss sundowners on our little balcony. Our tuk-tuk was waiting to take us uphill to the lodge.

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As darkness descended, we heard drums in the village below.  Oh, how I wished to see the drummers, how many were they? Was there dancing? Was it a special occasion? It was spellbinding.

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We’ve been to a lot of places in the past couple of years. Castles in Rhineland. Cafes in Paris. Palaces in India. The Taj Mahal! But, I have to say, Madulkelle had us … enchanted.

Next: A harrowing drive to Galle, the likes of which had never been done before.