Driving in Bahrain, part 1

Driving in any foreign country is often a cultural experience on to itself.  Bahrain is no exception.  Upon arriving in Bahrain I was still shaken up from my car accident in the States and the thought of driving in Bahrain was a nightmare.  I literally still shook when I had to drive and sitting as a passenger in Bahrain was just as terrifying.  Now, looking back I realize Bahrain was just  the cure to my driving fears, mostly because I either had to sink or swim.  Not really having a choice, unless we wanted to hire a driver (which is totally a normal thing here), I have learned to find driving in Bahrain quite efficient.  Not really sane or safe in anyway, just efficient.  I get from point A to point B, which is the whole point of driving, right?

Driving in Bahrain is frustrating for my western, logical, mind.  When we first moved here, just getting to my destination seemed like a momentous occasion to be celebrated.  I’m still amazed at how I’ve learned to navigate around Bahrain since Google maps “does” work here but seems to be about 1 block delayed and street signs may or may not exist.  Even the signs that do exist can be so faded you can’t read them, blocked by an overgrown tree or bush, or just straight up wrong.  Before one can really celebrate arriving at your destination, finding parking (which might be a whole blog on to itself) becomes the real obstacle and test of patience.  Thank goodness the rules, I mean guidelines, for parking are even less defined.

Driving in Bahrain takes patients, a lot of patients.  It also takes the sense of letting go of expectations. Which seems weird because if you think about it ALL of driving is based on expectations…certain expectations that everyone will generally follow said country’s driving rules.  And this is where the patients come into play.  Driving “rules” and “laws” do exist here but no one really follows them.  They are more like guidelines or suggestions open to serious interpretation based on the driver’s country of origin, how expensive your car/SUV is, and how big your vehicle is.  Now having been here 15 months, from what I have witnessed, these are the only agreed upon driving guidelines that most driver’s follow:

  • Drive on the right side of the road, inshallah.
  • Turn on your lights when driving at night, inshallah.
  • Stop at a red light if there is a traffic camera.  Otherwise, inshallah.
  • Honk often.
  • You are the most important driver on the road, so everyone needs to get out of your way and read your mind since you don’t use any signals.
  • Do not use any signals.
  • Park anywhere your car sort of fits.

Those are the guidelines.  Speed limit signs and other traffic signs are posted everywhere but these are more like side-of-the-road decorations or, again, suggestions.  Right of way exists to the largest vehicle in the vicinity, or the car that honks the most aggressively.  Pedestrians definitely do NOT have the right of way and never assume since you are walking half way across a street with your kids in hand a car some distance away will see you or slow down.  This makes walking with the kids a nightmare.  This is probably why you rarely see kids walking around on the streets.

While no one seems to know how to use a turn signal here (a pet peeve of mine even in the States), honking is everyone’s form of communication.  It’s not as bad as Delhi, India, Lima, Peru or other major cities I’ve traveled, but it’s still a lot.  At first, the honking got to me and it made me all flabbergasted and stressed out. Over time, I’ve learned to distinguish between the honks and realized honking (not signals) is a form of communication between drivers.  Here is my analysis and honking guide for Bahrain:

  • One long honk = equivalent to the middle finger -or- I’m not happy -or- get out of my way -or- watch out.
  • One short honk = move -or- start driving.
  • Short repetitive honks = (typically following the one short honk) i’m losing my patients and you need to move now before this turns into one long honk.
  • Two short honks = thank you (I have only seen three people in my entire time here actually wave as a ‘thank you’).

I’ve started using the honks. What I’ve learned is: 1. they work, and 2. God forbid you accidentally give someone two honks (“thank you” honk) when you meant to give one short one. The car in front of you becomes so confused they freeze and it takes longer for them to move. Rookie error.

There is so much more to go into this topic like parking, Saudi Swoops, car seats, and motorcycles but for now I’ll leave you with this. In a country that seems to be me-me-me first on the road, Emergency vehicles (i.e. EMT vehicles) have to stop for red lights even when their lights are flashing and sirens on. YES!!! I know.  I’ve seen this happen many times.  Every time I have witnessed this all I can do is pray. Pray that the person or people inside make it. Pray that the added 1-5 minutes (depending on the red light) isn’t the difference between life and death. And pray that the driver says “Fuck this shit” and blows through the light knowing how ridiculous it is to wait while no other vehicle on the road does.

Then again, maybe this is a deeper reflection of my time in Bahrain. Maybe this country, while I love it, has made me a little less optimistic. Or maybe it’s more optimistic, depending on how you see it. Either way, if you choose to visit us (and the doors are still open as long as we are here) please come with your favorite anti-anxiety remedy/medication or a new bottle of whiskey.  Tad particularly likes Jura which is hard to find here (wink wink).

Until next time. Aloha & Namaste.

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New Years in Sri Lanka

I’m about 9 months post date on my blogs.  I seem to start blogs and then never get around to finishing them.  But I still want to make sure I write down what I remember so our kids have memories.  Let’s be honest, so I have memories.  This mommy memory loss is no joke.

Here goes…NEW YEARS IN SRI LANKA, 1-7 January 2017

Luckily, with a little help of the Universe making it nearly impossible to get to India for the New Year as I had hoped, we found ourselves looking forward to a week in Sri Lanka. Not knowing anything about Sri Lanka I decided to book through a tour company. The thought being, if this is our only chance to see Sri Lanka then I want it to be the most informative, spectacular, memorable, AND fun trip for everyone. With the help of the tour company Red Dot, we had just that.  To this date, Tad thinks our trip to Sri Lanka was our best yet.

Here is what made Sri Lanka an amazing family vacation.

Day 1: After a direct flight from Bahrain, and an Izzy who did not sleep very well (ugh), we arrived at the newly renovated Colombo airport.  Our driver, Aruna, met us there and made us feel very welcome and comfortable instantly.  His van was immaculate, his English very good, and there was even water waiting for us in the van.

The first Sri Lanka experience was surprisingly not the airport (as I had mentally prepared for) but the just the driving.  Within seconds of leaving the airport, it was clear I should not look out the front window because it always looked like we were about to hit someone or someone was about to hit us.  Tad immediately pointed out that he was glad he wasn’t driving and happy to turn the wheel over to a professional.  At first, it seemed chaotic but we learned after a few days that there is definite order within the chaos of driving in Sri Lanka.  Like many places, the law of gross ton applies.  The bigger you are, you have the right of way.  You can pass as many cars as you want, even with cars heading straight at you, but be prepared to feel like you’re going to have a head-on-collision every time.  Still, it was worth every single penny to have someone drive us around for the week.

We jumped right into our vacation by heading straight to the to the Millenium Elephant Orphanage Foundation.  As I read from other family blogs, this stop is a good way to get the kids excited about being in Sri Lanka.  It worked.  It was perfect.  Even for Tad and I, the Elephant orphanage made us realize we had stepped into a totally different time and place.  Within a short walk from the front entrance, we were greeted with a huge field of elephants.  There is no glass or walls or anything between you and the elephants, just a few guys with sticks to guide and corral the elephants. Aruna had timed our arrival perfectly so we got to watch the tourist coveted “feeding.” Honestly, it hurt to watch because it looked so uncomfortable for the elephants. But apparently, elephants like milk and I trust they are not hurting the elephants at an orphanage.  Right?

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As soon as the feeding was over, Aruna told us to follow him.  At first, I was really annoyed he was taking us out of the park and not letting us look around.  But he was insistent we follow him and quickly.   He led across the main highway (a two-way road), down a tourist-trap street filled with Sri Lankan knick-knacks, to a hotel that sat on a beautiful river.  He then said, “Sit here. Order tea. Eat lunch.” Little did we know the best elephant show of our lives was about to take place. We had the best seats in the house to watch the elephants bathing in the river.  Within 15 minutes a huge herd of elephants was parading right next to our table and heading to the river we were overlooking.  It was both magical and humbling.  All of a sudden it was clear these were not cozy little kittens but huge, powerful, smart creatures.

While some of the elephants were chained in the water, most were let free to just bathe. There were huge water guns spraying at the elephants (which they seemed to like) as well as fireman grade hoses spraying them off.  It was so funny to watch.  You could begin to see personality in the elephants and how they preferred to bathe.  My favorite had to be the ones who just plopped down and started rolling around.  I’m not quite sure who loved it more, the kids or Tad and I.

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After lunch, we got back in the van for a few hour drive towards the Central Province of Sri Lanka.  Since we arrived in good time in our hotel area, Aruna suggested we visit the Dumbulla Caves, aka the Buddha caves.  I hadn’t included it on our itinerary because I wasn’t sure how the kids would do but I am so glad Aruna essentially forced us to go.  As you approach there are prayer flags strung above the road letting you know you’re approaching a very holy Buddhist site.  And holy, divine, and great it was.  From the parking lot, you turn a corner and BAM you’re greeted with one of the country’s tallest golden Buddha statues.  My mouth dropped.  My heart fluttered.   It is by far the tallest Buddha statue I’ve ever seen. It’s not the largest in the world, by far, but it’s still breathtaking and emits an aura that is respectable.

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To see the caves, dating back 2700 years, you climb up a steep hill lined with monkeys and people selling floral offerings.  This was also the first glimpse into the Izzy show. Almost every person we passed swooned over Izzy, smiling, cooing, pinching her cheeks, kissing her head.  At this point, after being in Bahrain for so long these types of gestures don’t bother me and we follow Izzy’s cues.  Partly tired, partly uncomfortable she wanted Tad to carry her.  So while the rest of us walked, Tad carried his little movie star up the steep hill.  Trace was totally thrilled that he wasn’t sitting anymore and happily walked up the hill.

The Dumbulla Caves Monastery are still functioning and are the oldest preserved edifices in Sri Lanka.  The kids were scared of the caves but enjoyed running around looking at the lotus flowers in the ponds.  It was just the beginning of a full week of lotus flower excitement.  Tad and I each took our turn in the caves and were both happy to have visited the holy place.  The cave paintings are very well preserved and the statues are breathtaking.  I would have liked to sit and meditate in the caves but long gone are the days of traveling on my own time.  The kids were getting rowdy and it was time to head to the hotel.  My photos will not do this sacred place justice but these Google images will.  The Dumbulla Caves have a fascinating history and worth a read on Wikipedia.

We stayed two nights at the Elephas Resort in Sigiriya. It’s a small boutique style hotel with an eco-friendly attitude. Most memorably, it had the best shrimp dish I’ve ever had.

Day 2 in Sri Lanka we ventured to the famous Sigiriya, Lion’s Rock Fortress. The history of this fortress is impressive and captivating–a real-life tale of rulers, harems, Buddhist monks, honor, and wars.  Walking around the pool gardens trying to imagine what it would have looked like in the 5th century was exciting and unbelievable.  Aruna hired a guide who took us to the top which means the guide also carried Trace up all the steep and treacherous spots (there were many).  For most of the trip, you’re climbing steep steps strapped to the side of a mountain with scaffolding…and not US standard scaffolding, Sri Lankan standards.  In retrospect, Tad said we totally got lucky that our guide didn’t get mad or upset at us or Trace and accidentally let Trace fall over the cliffs to a horrible death.  That never even crossed my mind.  We’re an adventurous family with good intuition and I thought it was good for us (said the mom not carrying a child up the steep steps). I was most proud of Tad knowing he isn’t the biggest fan of heights but he didn’t say anything and kept trucking along with Izzy in his arms.  Izzy showed her love for all things adventurous and daring and had no troubles with the heights.  The top of Lion Mountain where the main palace was built had a spectacular view (as you might imagine) and was WORTH every sweaty step (again, said the mom not carrying a child and who loves heights).

That afternoon we arranged to go on an elephant safari at Kaudulla National Park.  We had our own private jeep and guide who knew which area of the park the elephants were gathered.   Apparently, the elephants migrate between three main areas during the different seasons. Not only did we see the most spectacular wild elephant show ever imaginable (blew Day 1 out of the water), we got to see a wild elephant on the way to the park just cruising along the highway.   Elephants are spectacular, breathtaking creatures even at the zoo but to see them in real life, in their habitat, playing together, fighting, eating, cruising, bathing…it makes me love them even more. It was this park that we also got to see our first peacock with its feathers raised. It was far away but still spectacular.

Day 3 we loaded up the van and headed to Kandy. And yes, it took all day. Sri Lanka, while having modern roads doesn’t mean the traffic or driving is fast. The twists, turns, and traffic made what would be a quick hour drive from point A to point B a six-hour drive.  Knowing it would be a long drive, Aruna was really good at spacing out stops for us.  The first one was at an Ayurveda spice garden.  Having self-studied Ayurveda since I was a teenager and then becoming certified as an Ayurveda Wellness Counselor in the States, I was excited to see the medicinal plants in the wild.  To be honest it wasn’t anything spectacular but it was a good mini-ecological stop and opportunity to see Ayurveda medicinals in action.  Right at the end of our tour, Izzy tripped and fell slicing open her knee.  She couldn’t have done it at a better place.  Immediately 10 guys swooped around to help and calm her (obviously freaking her out more) and clean up her wound with traditional Ayurveda herbs.  I was thrilled to see Ayurveda from its motherland in action.  They applied crushed herbal powder onto her knee and told me to let it stay on as long as possible.  No joke, her knee healed surprisingly fast.

The next stop on our way to Kandy was at a friend’s of Arunas.  This family showed us how to use every part of the coconut tree from the nut itself (water, milk, oil) to making rope with the coconut shell husk, and woven mats from the fronds.  Being a lover of all things coconut, it was informative and impressive to see how the whole tree was used and processed to aid humans’ lives.  The kids each took a turn making coconut fiber ropes which they then carried with them throughout the trip like a trophy.  I liked that stop even more than the Ayurveda botanical gardens.

We arrived in Kandy at rush hour…although I have a feeling it’s always congested. After checking into our beautiful and modern hotel OZO Kandy, we took a guided tour at Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  The Temple is one of the major pilgrimage places for Buddhists.  Honestly, I’m not sure what was more impressive our 98 y.o. tour guide or the temple.  Joking, not joking.  Our tour guide had Tad and I holding back laughter the entire time.  He was so sweet mannered and definitely knew every single piece of history about the Temple but was unable to field any of our questions without repeating his entire monologue again.  Neither Tad or I are Buddhists but we have both read lots of Eastern philosophy texts and Buddhist books.  The Temple took all of our breath away at different points.  The most notable moment was in the meditation hall near the actual tooth relic. Trace and Izzy, despite being squirmy since getting out of the car, sat still and silent while our Monk friend forced us to sit and “meditate.”  Clearly, I was all about it but to see the whole family feel something unique and quieting was unexpected and heartwarming.  As we exited the museum to conclude our tour the only rain of our trip poured down on us.  It was a welcomed blessing and “cleanse.”

We finished our only night in Kandy with a Sri Lankan cultural dance show.  Although Tad and I were very excited to see it, the kids took one look at the masks and nearly lost it. Okay, Izzy totally lost it. Trace lasted about 10 minutes then was too scared to go on. Oh well. That’s one of the things about traveling with toddlers–not everything is going to be a big win.  Tad and I have to make quick decisions and decide if it’s worth moving on, potentially having already paid for a ticket or fee, or to make the kids tolerate it because we really want experience/see it. We decided to leave the show and walk the long way home around Bogambara Lake which was a nice way to feel and see more of the city before heading to bed.

Despite spending most of Day 3 in the van, day 4 was the longest day on our total week-long vacation.  Again, God bless our kids were growing, therefore, napping all the time, we drove about 250km from Kandy to Laya Safari Resort, due west of the Yala National Park entrance. Technically Google Maps says it takes about 5.5 hours but it took us 8.5 with scenic stops along the tea plantations and lunch in Nuwara Eliya.  For many, driving that long and far doesn’t sound like a way to spend a vacation.  For Tad and I, we totally love it! We got to see SO much of the gorgeous countryside we wouldn’t otherwise see. We also weren’t driving so we could nap when we wanted.  Since Tad and I love tea, stopping and taking a tour of the tea plantation was awesome. We learned so much and gained an even deeper appreciation and love for all things tea.  And like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, Izzy was asked to be in many family photos.  To me, it’s bizarre to even imagine why you’d ask a stranger to be in a family vacation photo but apparently, it’s a thing.

Nuwara Eliya was a nice lunch stop with the best shrimp masala Tad and I have ever had.  This is where a lot of Indians and Middle Easterners come to vacation.  It definitely has a resort town feeling to it.  I’m sure there is a lot to do but we continued on.  The last stop before we left the mountains was in Ella.  Ella is Sri Lanka’s backpacker’s mecca.  It wreaked (literally and figuratively) of backpackers with all the quintessential backpackers’ places like the German bakery, internet cafes, smoothie and juice stands, lounges, yoga decks, and shopping.  While we stopped for a quick tea, and let Izzy indulge in her first experience with chocolate cake, it was nice for me to remember my backpacking days and think about how much I would have LOVED this town.  Now, as a married globe-trotting mother of two, I realized I no longer desired this type of vacation spot and was truly happy to be where I was in life.  As we drove away with sounds of Bob Marley and ambient music playing from hippy-chic incense burning cafes, I felt like I was driving away from that part of my past for good.  It felt sweet.  I felt free.

When we did finally arrive at our next hotel, Laya Safari Resort, we realized just how far our money goes in a country like Sri Lanka. While the places we had stayed in were nice up to this point, this was another step up into luxury vacationing.  Lotus ponds greeted us at the front entrance, the property sat right on the Bay of Bengal, elephant markings were all over the property, and monkeys were playing and watching us humans from the rooftops as if we were the safari park.  This is also where Trace and Izzy learned the phrase: NO MUD, NO LOTUS.  The service and food were incredible and we were at the gateway to Sri Lanka’s coveted Yala National Park, one of the best safari parks in the country.  While we were assured it was a family-friendly spot, I was a relieved when we were lead away from the beachfront properties to our own private two bedroom Thicket Villa.  We were completely isolated by nature and the sky. The kids finally got to experience the night sky in all its glory and we even got our own monkey visitors the next day. 

Day 5 we began the day lounging around the pool and taking a walk-about on the beach… with the lifeguard.  At first, I was really annoyed that he wouldn’t leave us alone but then I felt bad when Tad told me the lifeguard had lost all his family and many of his closest friends and teachers in the 2004 tsunami.  My heart sank when I learned this.  It was our first reminder of the devastating tsunami that changed the lives of thousands in this tiny country.  Hearing his past and reflecting on my annoyance made me remember to be more compassionate with all.  My perspective immediately shifted and I was grateful he cared about us so much.

That afternoon was our Safari Day at Yala National Park.  Right before our safari, we had our own close-encounters with wild monkeys at our cabin.  What started off as, “oh look at the cute monkeys right there,” quickly escalated to Tad locking all the doors and witnessing a monkey throw itself against our patio door. We still don’t know if it was trying to get Izzy, open the door, or just show dominance. Either way, I no longer saw the cute hotel monkeys as “cute.” Instead, I wanted nothing to do with them.

As we began our private safari tour, I sat back with very low expectations.  Since we had already seen the most magnificent elephant safari I could imagine in Kaudulla, I wasn’t too worried if we saw anything else in Yala National Park.  The safari was filled with beautiful landscape and tons of animals but I also got really upset when we found ourselves in a jocking match with 20 other jeeps for the best view of a small family of elephants.  I know our driver just wanted us to get good photos but I just wanted us to stop, respect from afar, and watch them rather than worrying about being “the closest.”  I finally asked Aruna to tell our driver to stop and to just sit and watch.  When we did so, four or five elephants came really close to our jeep.  I got to stare into the eyes of a huge elephant and then as it stood there, I noticed the belly was moving.  It was a pregnant elephant.  I got chills watching her slowly pass us and watch the unborn elephant move from the outside.  I admit I was teary.  It was a magical in-the-wild moment for me.  Four hours later filled with elephants, water buffalo, crocodiles, peacocks, an eagle eating a rabbit in a tree, and more peacocks, we were all beat and full of wildlife sightings.  It really was spectacular and fun.  By the end, I had decided my new totem animal was the Water Buffalo and Izzy had a keen eye for peacocks.  Every time she saw one she yelled in her cute little toddler voice, “eecock, eecock.”  Izzy now has a peacock poster on her wall.

Day 6 we drove along the south coast and finally experienced the Sri Lankan coastal vibes.  Between the cities that were bustling with tuk tuk’s, horn honking, ladies in beautifully colored saris, and the aromas of delicious Sri Lankan food were vast stretches of coconut lined turquois white sandy beaches.  We even got to see the Sri Lankan famous stilt fisherman (either for tourist purposes or because they were really fishing, probably a little of both).  We arrived mid-day at another amazing hotel, Mosvold Villas in Ahangama Bay.  The minute they opened their private gates I felt like we were transported to an entirely new Sri Lanka. And we were. It was the beach life version of Sri Lanka. While we had experienced a large touristy hotel for lunch, we were thrilled to be staying at a small private boutique hotel with only 8 rooms. I HIGHLY recommend this small hotel chain. It was amazing! In fact, to this day it is still one of my favorite hotels of all time. Then again, maybe it’s my association because I FINALLY got to go surfing!!!! IN SRI LANKA!!!!!!! I hadn’t been surfing since June 2014 when we moved away from Oceanside, California. Over two years later, thanks to Tad watching the little ones on the beach, I got to go surfing in Sri Lanka!!!! Insert biggest Haunani smile you can imagine.

Ahangama is just west of the popular Weligama Bay and surf breaks.   There were plenty of surf lessons in Ahangama but not a lot of wave catching.  That wasn’t going to deter me.  After I found the board I wanted from a beach hut, the owner told me there was a reef break at the far east side of the bay.  At the time there was only one other guy surfing and one lady patiently waiting on the beach for the waves to pick up.  I didn’t waste any time.  I said my little prayer to the ocean Goddesses and jumped right in.  Now before I make myself sound better than I am, I do NOT call myself a “surfer.” I like to surf.  I love the water.  I can paddle out, catch a wave, and repeat.  I can surf but I leave the term “surfer” for the ladies and gentlemen who live on the water.  At this point in my life, and the long sabbatical since 2014, I am more like a visitor or surf vacationer.  I wish it were different, and maybe someday we’ll get stationed near a surfing town again, but for now, I was beyond giddy, excited, and pumped to be catching little 1-2ft waves. Seriously, smile from ear to ear.  And since there was only two of us out, it was a wave factory–wave, after wave for just the two of us.  Eventually 4-5 more people paddled out and that’s when I decided I’d go in.  My last wave even brought me all the way to the beach.  It was the perfect exclamation mark to an amazing family vacation.  That night ended with a mediocre last meal in a beach restaurant that lost power.  Little did we know the lack-luster last meal on vacation would become a Drake family vacation trend.

Day 7, our final day in Sri Lanka, we woke very early to go whale watching. While the wharf and marina experience was very exciting and the kids loved it (when they weren’t sleeping), Tad and I wish we had stayed at the hotel for the morning.  We did see a few whales but it didn’t come without me getting super worked up. The whale watching mirrored the Yala safari experience. When a whale was discovered all the whale watching boats (maybe 10 in our area) would go into high speed to chase the whale. Again, I’m sure it’s because they want the passengers to get good photos but it made my heart sink. I want to respect the whale in its environment, not scare the poor thing.   Logistically there are so many people crammed onto the boats anyway, good luck capturing a decent photo unless you’re willing to hand your camera and a few rupees to one of the deckhands.

By the time the whale watching tour was over, we were already exhausted but had to pull ourselves together for a quick turnaround to the airport. By that point, Bahrain felt so foreign again, so distant, and we were all pretty excited to get back. Sri Lanka was so good to us but we also were ready to settle into 2017 in Bahrain. Surprisingly, it was a little emotional for me to say good-bye to Aruna, our driver. I didn’t anticipate it but a week on the road in a foreign country makes you very fond of your driver. Like an Uncle you didn’t know you had until you realize he’s willing to do anything to protect you, make you have a good time, and be straight up honest with you about religion, politics, people, and philosophy. He was fantastic. If anyone wants his number, I still have it and am happy to share it with you. To this day, several months later, Izzy still asks about Aruna and every time she sees a grey van asks, “Aruna?”

Sri Lanka was more amazing and more enriching to our senses than we had anticipated. The people were beyond friendly…something to be said about traveling in a Buddhist country…and the food delicious.  My favorite way to describe Sri Lanka is: Sri Lanka is all the best parts of India without the grime, crime, and anxiety.  For those of you who are afraid or uncertain about traveling to India (I don’t blame you having been there several times) but want to travel to a country that is very far away from the western world, I recommend Sri Lanka.  People who have been to south India say Sri Lanka is like South India.  I doubt it.  Nothing will be just like Sri Lanka. Only Sri Lanka can be Sri Lanka. There is a magic there that will enter your spirit and you will come home with a little more of Buddha’s smile shining from within.

Aloha & Namaste

Final note:  Due to weird computer issues, I’m having troubles getting my Sri Lanka photos uploaded.  If you would like to see photos from our Sri Lanka trip, click HERE.  It will take you to Facebook where we have an entire album dedicated to our Sri Lanka vacation.

The Drakes do Oman, Oct 6-9 2017

I spent Spring Break 2001 in Oman.  Not the most sought after Spring Break location but I was just about to turn 21 years old and studying abroad in Kenya.  Back then, never did I imagine 1. I’d return and 2. with a family (I was that girl who was never going to have kids).  Not that I didn’t like Oman.  My memories of it are beautiful, quieting to my Soul, shawarma (yes, I had my first shawarma in Oman), and the people lovely.  But just because you have fond memories of a place doesn’t mean you’ll go back, more like, get the chance to go back and THAT is the difference.  

Part of my initial shock and excitement of learning we were moving to Bahrain was flooded with memories of Oman.  It felt like the experiences of my past were surely being connected to the present.  I mean really, who goes to Oman on Spring Break? And then who moves to another Middle Eastern country 16 years later?  Clearly, my past was preparing me for my future as a globe-trotting military spouse…or not and I’m trying to find meaning in something much larger than myself.

When Tad informed me of his interest in going to Oman, I was super excited.  Truly, I never thought I’d ever get the chance to return.  It’s not like I had major connections or people to visit, it’s just one of those places I never thought I’d ever visit again.  But here we were planning a trip to Oman.  From the little I could remember (my excuse is that my frontal cortex was in its infancy of full development in 2001), I knew we would head to Muscat and see some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.  Luckily with the help of TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Facebook planning our trip was relatively easy.  Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, specifically Al Waha “The Oasis,” it was.  And yes, the photos on their website are real.  It is THAT beautiful.  

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Our second international family trip was similar to our first in Dubai, a long four-day weekend.  While that doesn’t sound long, when traveling internationally with two toddlers, it’s LONG.  It’s just long enough to know you’re not at home and long enough to feel like you’ve been away a long time when you return.  The great thing about something as simple as a bus or shuttle ride is that Trace loses his mind with excitement. The saying “the journey is the destination” comes to life when traveling with Trace and Izzy.  The little things, a bus ride, shuttle ride on an open top trolley, walking sidewalks, are huge monumental experiences.  This is why traveling with toddlers is TOTALLY worth it.  What Tad and I may consider boring or just a means to get from point A to point B becomes the experience.  Every detail of a four-day vacation is epic for someone in the family.   

When we arrived in Oman it was nighttime.  We hired a pre-paid taxi at the airport to drive us to our hotel 45 minutes away.  While I was trying to stay calm and relaxed, inside I was really hyper and excited to be in Oman again.  Would I recognize anything?  I was staring out the windows pretending not to care but internally I was straining every strand of my poor-night vision to catch a glimpse of something familiar.

As we approached the hotel the hills were rolling and there were a few whitewashed middle eastern looking villas glowing in the backdrop of date palm silhouettes. As we exited a long beautifully lit tunnel the hotel entrance hit every sense of curiosity and luxury.  I’m pretty sure all four of us spontaneously said, “aaaaawwwwww.” We had arrived and we knew we were in for a treat.  Not only was our room beautiful, clean, and welcoming, we actually got an adjoining room just for the kids.  WHAT?!!!!  Are you frickin’ kidding me?! Hallelujah!!!  I was beyond excited and probably jumped over the counter to hug the receptionist while exclaiming, “this is already the best hotel we’ve ever stayed at.”  OK, that’s what I was doing in my mind.  Being close to midnight we were all exhausted and the kids happily jumped into their hotel beds.  Izzy refused to sleep in the pack n’ play they had provided and got the opportunity to sleep in a real big-kid bed a.k.a twin size bed.  Clearly, she felt like a queen too–the little things.  

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First impressions from the room balcony

The kids were asleep in their own room and the surrounding mountains and nearly full-moon beckoned me to sit outside on the balcony–no book, no drink, no phone, and just sit.  It was glorious.  I may have cried.  Tad drained the mini-bar of its beer. Retrospectively, I now realize the mini-bar raid is a ritual he practices upon arriving at a hotel.  Probably has something to do with traveling with kids but I giggle inside celebrating that he’s just enjoying himself.  

We really didn’t have any plans for our trip except to just play it by ear.  While I have a lot of enviable friends in Bahrain who are super-planners for their family vacations, our approach is one of “let’s see what happens.”  Truthfully, I wish I planned more for our vacations but where does one find the time to research, call, hire, and plan all this stuff???  So really, our vacation style is out of laziness or what I like to tell myself, going with the flow.

We spent our first of two full days at the hotel.  I know, this sounds so lame if you’ve never been to Oman.  I hear the questions now why didn’t we hire a guide, take a jeep safari, go to the wadis, do anything besides stay at the hotel?  To be honest, Tad and I just needed a day of doing nothing.  The hotel was the perfect place to vacation and do nothing.  Between the pools, splash pad, lazy river rides, beautiful beaches, amazing customer service, and delicious food it was a perfect day.  We seriously spent hours just floating around and around and around on the lazy river ride.  Post-nap time we somehow got our act together to go to Old Muscat on the hotel shuttle.  

It was the first time we were actually seeing Muscat during the day and it was just as beautiful as I remembered it.  One of the biggest differences between Oman and Bahrain is that there are hills.  No trees, but there are still hills.  Cafe colored desert hillsides with pure white houses flowing into a brilliant turquoise blue ocean is a photographer’s dream.  Izzy decided to string together her first two-word phrase on this bus ride pointing out the window yelling with toddler excitement, “Blue boat!  Blue boat!”  No, there were not actually blue boats outside.  After twenty minutes of excitedly exclaiming “blue boat!” and every passenger quickly turning their heads thinking maybe this time there actually was a blue boat, or dhow, we drove into old Muscat where, to everybody’s surprise and delight, sitting in the middle of the bay was…no joke…a blue boat.  Tad and I laughed hysterically.  I know, you’re not laughing as you read this last part but Tad and I will look back at this entry one day and smile with joy remembering “blue boat.”  

As the bus drove through Old Muscat, specifically the area of Mutrah, we drove past the hotel I stayed at in 2001.  I couldn’t have told you anything about it before we drove-by but the minute I saw it, I knew.  It was a huge de ja vus moment.  I remembered where the shawarma truck was parked, where the souk was located, the memories came flooding back.  It was surreal.

Mutrah Market is just as lively as the Bahrain market.  Again, the phrase “same same but different” applies to the Mutrah (old Muscat area) souk.  Souks are both tourist traps for their sensory overload but also where locals do their shopping.  Spices.  Gold.  Fake gold.  Brass statues.  Shoes.  Kids clothes.  Fabric.  Food items.  Gems.  Rocks.  Jewelry.  Imagine what a “mall” would be like pre-mall times with no air conditioning, no outside structure, each stall slammed up against each other creating one giant maze, uneven ground, with the smell of not Auntie Anne’s cinnamon pretzels but of thousand-year-old sweat.  Aaaah, it’s so hard to describe.  If it’s intriguing to you, just come to visit.  The “souk” is something that needs to be experienced not read about.

That night we ventured back to the hotel for dinner.  The highlight was when Trace was accosted in the bathroom by two beyond tipsy young ladies (late 20’s I’m guessing).  They thought he was the cutest boy they’d ever seen.  I agreed.  He shied away when they asked for an Instagram selfie with him but then he was jumping up and down when they each gave him a kiss on each cheek.  Tad was perplexed by the perfectly shaped red lipstick marks on Trace’s cheeks when we returned to the table.  This is probably an appropriate place to point out that this trip was our first trip with a “potty trained” Trace.  Most potty-training “experts” say don’t make any big changes when you potty-train, routine is everything, yaddah yaddah yah.  Supposedly any big move, stressor, or travel can throw off a child’s sense of comfort and lead to potty-training “regression.”  Well, since Trace had been a full week into his potty-training graduation, we took a trip to Oman.  That’s the type of parents we are.  But Trace chose us as parents and HE DID MARVELOUS!!!  Not one accident!  When they’re ready, they’re ready.

The next day, day two of two, we hired a guide to take us around Muscat to show us some of the big highlights of the city.  Still being a million degrees outside, it was a good way to explore the city–from one AC place to the next.  We saw the fish market (again, same same but different as any other outdoor fish market in a coastal town in the middle east), the Al Alam Palace, the fortressed bay behind Al Alam Palace and near Al Mirani Fort, and then toured the Bait Al Zubair Museum.  With the help of a full complete Trace meltdown, we decided to spend the rest of the day at the hotel was best for everyone.

Enter Izzy’s first ice cream experience.  Thank goodness we had our phones with us to capture her unforgettable joy and cuteness.  No words can describe the initial bite.  The mix of, “What is this?  Wow! I like it…I mean love it!  Wait a minute, you guys (parents) have been holding out on meeeeee. More more.” This photo series may be my favorite of all photos taken of my children.

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That night, we had the best family dinner at the hotel’s seafood restaurant overlooking the ocean.  I can’t tell you why or how it worked out so well but the kids behaved like they were 27–no yelling, no screaming, polite, ate everything on their plate, and allowing us to eat like adults, not Neanderthals with our hands.  Maybe the key is taking them to nice restaurants instead of family joints?  So much for their college fund.  Needless to say, Tad and I left the restaurant feeling like we’d won the lotto.  And really, we have.  It was a perfect family vacation.  It wiped away any remaining hesitations about traveling with the kids.  Exploring the world with two amazing kids who embrace the people, the smells, the foods, the languages…we are so grateful for all the blessings in our lives.

Upon leaving Oman we knew we had Nana and Grandpa’s visit, as well as the holiday season quickly approaching so we did not know what our next travel would be.   Luckily, with a little help of the Universe making it nearly impossible to get to India for the New Year as I had hoped, we found ourselves looking forward to a week in Sri Lanka.  

Side note: Sorry this post is nine months late.  I literally have been working on it since last October. Oh, Life!  Hopefully, I’ll have our Sri Lanka, India, Dubai/Abu Dhabi, and Georgia (the country) trips soon.  Fingers crossed.  Don’t hold your breath.

Until next time…Aloha & Namaste

Dubai family weekend

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One of the perks, major perks, of living in Bahrain is the travel opportunity.  While some people choose to stay in the cozy land of sand, this girl and her family are committed to taking advantage of any little time-off Tad has to explore the surrounding countries…and continents. If you haven’t taken the time to look up where the Kingdom of Bahrain is located, here is a link:  https://goo.gl/maps/KTqgmajsni42  Bahrain is so centrally located to so many countries within a 1-5 hour fly time, it makes the travel opportunities EPIC!  

When we first started talking about traveling we decided we’d start close.  After all, we did just fly across the globe with two toddlers.  Not quite sure how flexible Trace and Izzy actually were to airports, layovers, airplanes, and sleeping in hotel rooms as a family, we chose Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as our first trip.  Again, for those geographically challenged, this is where Dubai is located: https://goo.gl/maps/v7SmECooSmQ2  We figured this would be a good trial.  If all went well, we’d take another trip, and another, and just keep the ball rolling.  Fortunately, that is exactly what happened and ripping the proverbial band-aid off the idea of traveling with two toddlers was the best decision we’ve made so far…as parents.  Hands down.  Not joking.

In mid-August (just two weeks after moving into our new house, six weeks after moving to Bahrain) when Tad came home saying, “if we want to travel over Labor Day weekend I need to tell them tomorrow,” I initially panicked.  Seriously?  Tomorrow?!  There’s nothing like a little external pressure to spend money on traveling to a new country in one day that makes me feel alive.  My response to Tad, “Done.”  Luckily that day I had Googled “Dubai aquarium” on a whim and discovered that Dubai has a beautiful, modern aquarium (in a mall of course).  I had shown the kids at dinner.  They were sold.  I was sold.  And when I showed Tad, he was sold too.  That night after dinner I bought plane tickets to Dubai (a 45-minute flight from Bahrain) and booked our hotel room.  We were off to Dubai for Labor Day weekend.

I’m not going to lie, the day we were supposed to leave for Dubai was a little chaotic and stressful given I was trying to pack as a minimalist, be a mom, get us to the airport on time, and learned our hotel reservation had not been confirmed.  Yep, you read that correctly—no confirmed hotel the day of our flight.  As it was getting closer to GO time (go pick-up Tad at work and head straight to the airport), I was less than put together as a mom or human being.  Really, I was on the verge of, “I’m never doing this again.”  Luckily, as I’m pulling out of the driveway to pick-up Tad, he texts me “Oh, I see that email about the hotel room.  All I needed to do was click the link.”  Aaaaaah.  Exhale.  I was praying that THAT was the extent of the travel hiccoughs…but as a recovering control-freak with very high expectations, I knew I was walking the line of high-strung-mommia. Note: the kids call me “mommia” a lot of the time.  I love it.  

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Traces’s first airport tram ride.  Despite his tired face here, he was a huge fan.

Everything about this trip was new and a major adventure figuring out how travel in and out of Bahrain actually worked.  Luckily, despite what the imagination can come up with, it’s very similar to traveling in the United States.  There are well managed and well signed long-term parking lots that seemed “relatively” secure.  Thank goodness we both have island beaters, so parking next to a Lexus SUV is the best theft prevention.  The shuttle bus was a HUGE hit for Trace, as was every part of the trip that included seeing or being inside an airplane, construction vehicle, bus, or taxi.  And despite the germaphobe in me totally freaking out as Trace drug his lovie across the Bahrain and Dubai airports, flying with the kids was really fun.  We learned that traveling with two toddlers comes with its perks, especially if they are crying…extra free snacks on the plane and most importantly being shuttled to the front of almost any long line.  Not that we can make our kids cry on demand (although we might need to start implementing a “travel only” cry command), but luckily Izzy cried at all the right times to be escorted to the front of very, very long immigration and customs lines.  Thatta kid.

We hit Dubai hard knowing we only had two full days.  The itinerary included: aquarium and Burj Khalifa (the tallest man-made building in the World).  For those who don’t have a visual in your head of Dubai or haven’t checked Google images of Dubai just think of the Jetsons cartoon.  You know the one with towering, space-ship like buildings, cars that fly, and everything state-of-the-art and robotic.  That is Dubai.  I didn’t see any flying cars (although I wasn’t going to be surprised if I saw one) but apparently, you can now request a “flying Uber” to pick you up.  Totally the Jetsons.   

Day one in Dubai was checking off the must-do’s.  We went straight to the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo located in the Dubai Mall.  While Tad and I are not mall types, we definitely know a good thing when we see it and the Dubai Mall is ridiculous.  I mean, there is a full aquarium and the World’s tallest man-made building in it.  That should speak for itself.  

The aquarium started with a beautiful underwater tunnel with fish and sharks the size of cars and it only got better.  It was at the aquarium that we began to see the personality differences between Trace and Izzy.  While Trace was fascinated he was also very, very cautious and a bit scared.  Izzy, on the other hand, was our fearless, independent adventurer who had no troubles walking over glass bridges, feeding massive tuna, and walking up to the fish and crocodiles in the tanks.  This difference was even more glaring at the top of the Burj Khalifa.  

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Tad & Trace with the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa behind

The Burj Khalifa is omnipresent in Dubai.  You can see its needle-like spire towering from almost anywhere in the city and it is BEAUTIFUL!  In a very luxurious middle eastern way the whole experience at the Burj Khalifa was over the top.  One can choose to buy a ticket to the first observation deck at level 125 at 456 meters or visit At the Top, the world’s tallest observation deck on level 148 at 555 meters. There was no way we were coming to Dubai and NOT going to the top, so that’s what we did.  It was worth every penny. If you’re going to be in Dubai, go big or go home.  At the Top was breathtaking and truly an experience to remember.  What seemed like a bustling huge city just moments below became a serene toy-like spectacle of a city plan, with no horns, no sounds, just the whisper of the breeze and classical Arabic music playing in the posh lounge.  It was here that Izzy, like her mother, had no problems running straight up to the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, while Trace needed to be carried until he warmed up to the idea that Izzy was not falling out of the building.

We did stop on the way down at the 125th level observation deck and yes, even that view was spectacular, but NOTHING like the top. Obviously, if you do not like heights the top is not for you. In fact, the 125th floor would be out of the question too. But for me, I love being so high. Insert giggles. I’m that girl who walks straight to the edge of the Grand Canyon and opens her arms wide to take it all in, maybe even throws myself on to my head for a glorious headstand or some random yoga pose to commemorate the view and vastness of it all.  

Day one felt so complete and overwhelming all at the same time but we were so proud of the kids for hanging in, chugging along even when mommy and daddy were dragging them up to the top of the world during their nap time.  We all celebrated the day with a fun swim in the hotel pool and a nice authentic German dinner at the only licensed Hofbrauhaus in the Middle East.  

Day two, our last full day, turned out to be as amazing and adventurous as the first day. What began as a simple idea to go see the indoor ski slopes at the Emirates Mall turned into a whirlwind tour of old Dubai, the spice market, gold souk, and a sunset dhow (traditional wooden boat) ride.  I have always scoffed at the tourist hop-on-hop-off buses because they seemed so obviously touristy, but that’s exactly what we decided to do.  It proved to be a win-win for the kids who were melting in the 100+ degree sun and didn’t want to walk anymore but allowed us to see a lot of the city in an air-conditioned bus (even if we did decide to sit on the top level without AC).  It was a blast and we got to see more of Dubai and old Dubai than we would have otherwise.  Everyone was happy.  Trace was ecstatic to be on a double-decker bus.  Izzy got to nap on daddy. Tad and I got to learn a little history, take photos, and explore.    

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Needless to say, the kids crashed hard that night.  Lights out.  For Tad and I, our final evening of unexpected cultural surprises continued as we witnessed two wedding processions in our hotel.  Talk about over-the-top.  It was definitely fun to see another culture’s wedding reception.  It made me really happy Tad and I did a small wedding celebration in Kauai.  One last surprise for the day was spotting a Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay on the Marriott’s wine list.  Woodinville wines represent!!  I was so proud.  

Overall, our trip to Dubai was truly amazing and worth the initial freak out session.  Before we even departed Dubai, Tad and I were planning our next family vacation which would be approximately one month away.  In good ‘ole plan a vacation in one day, because Tad needs 30 days to get clearance and approval, that’s what I ended up doing for our trip to Oman.  Until next time, keep your eye out for the hashtag #DrakesinBahrain on your social media feeds.  

And for those who didn’t get to see all our photos from Dubai on Facebook, here you go (I hope this works): https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10154191505733073&type=1&l=042b5c61c1

One last thing…Izzy is the best ice breaker and show stopper in the Middle East. #likeIzzy

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Izzy walking down the jetway in Dubai.