Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Kampala, Uganda

LV > LA=1 hour
LA > Dubai=16 hours
Dubai > Uganda=5 hours

WE FINALLY MADE IT TO AFRICA!

I say finally, but to be honest it didn't feel like it took as long as it actually did. Our flights were beyond perfect--and that is a huge when you go on big trips in a short amount of time. I hardly felt the effects of jet lag, which I partly owe to our smart flight booking, but it also had a lot more to do with the fact that I had was in Africa!! A place I had only dreamed of going. And we weren't in just regular Africa, but we were in the "Pearl of Africa". I often got asked by fellow travelers why I chose Uganda. They always told me I made the right choice. And it didn't take me long to see why. 

Stepping off of that plane was surreal. The airport was tiny, and not just compared to where we had just come from. It was the smallest airport I'd ever been in. The land was green. Probably greener than I'd ever seen and the dirt was a bright reddish-brown. The contrast was like nothing I'd ever seen either. Everything was so vibrant and beautiful. The line for customs took a really long time and we were sweating in the unconditioned airport. But after about an hour of waiting we were finally done and on our way!

We walked out of the doors of the airport and in the midst of a ginormous crowd of Ugandans we heard my name and then saw my sign! I've always dreamed of a person holding my name on a sign at an airport. The fact that it was in Africa made it that much better. Nicolas was a man that Julie (BC's friend) had put me in touch with. We had been email communicating for a few weeks now. Poor Nic had been waiting for us for over an hour because of the customs line. I'm grateful he stuck around! Our union was joyous. I cannot say enough great things about this man.He was so happy and smiley and cheerful and just all-around great. More on why later, but we were all so excited to finally meet and get on the road to Kampala!

Entebbe>Kampala= 1 hour (without traffic) 
Traffic in Kampala is insane. Always congested. 
It took us a couple hours to finally make our way to our hostile. We went around to a few and our we fell in love with one called Cornerstone that was unavailable and by invite only. It was more of a house than a hostile for volunteers. We finally settled on staying at City Annex right in the heart of downtown Kampala. In hindsight, it was the perfect place. Within walking distance to a lot of places. After making future plans with Nic and then saying our goodbyes...we were on our own to explore the city. Everybody in Uganda takes boda-bodas everywhere. We were nervous to get on a bike with some random man in the middle of Africa in the crazy bad traffic. (Later that night we consulted with some fellow American travelers and they assured us that it was totally safe--well safe enough and fine to do). But for that evening we trusted our good 'ole feet. 
Our first stop was at a local mall. The mall in Uganda--is not what you think. I don't even know what was in there to be honest. Stores, but not like clothing stores. It was like i don't even know what kind of stores. We saw a computer hub, where you could pay to use a computer. And then we saw a grocery store. We decided to grab dinner real quick at a local restaurant that had wi-fi before heading back to explore the grocery store. PS: Wi-fi was impossible to find in Kampala for us. Everyone just told us to buy sim cards and pay for internet that way--well sim cards didn't fit in our iPhones...so we couldn't. I was shocked. It would have been helpful. Anyways we had a delicious, totally American meal as our first meal in Uganda. I think I got a burger and Margo got fish of some sort I think. It was good though. After dinner we headed back to the grocery store to explore. This was the straight up Wal-mart of grocery stores. There were appliances and everything for sale there! I was quite surprised. But i was definitely just because we were win the big city. We never saw stores like that again. Sidenote: There were police everywhere in Kampala. To get into the parking lot where the mall was a police officer had to search you. To get into the mall, you got searched. To get into the grocery store, you got checked. There were also officers up and down the streets and ones outside of our hostile as well. Only girl officers could search the women. If no female officer was present, you didn't get checked. It was insane how many police officers were everywhere!
Please notice the police officer in the background on guard
After dinner we spotted a massage place! Um...if you know anything about me and Margo--we are obsessed. So of course we had to see what African massages were all about. It was a really nice place and the prices were decent. We opted for the $20 scrub and massage. Boy were we in for a shock. What started out nice and completely normal ended a bit differently.We were given some carrot juice and  taken to individual rooms and asked if one of us would mind a male masseuse. Margo tends to like it "rougher" than me (pun intended, just kidding) so she opted for the male. We were given privacy to undress with a sheet to properly keep us covered and were scrubbed with some Hawaiian smelling scrub--seems normal enough. Until we got to the chest area. She folded that sheet right on down and rubbed my breasts. Yes, my breasts. I was shocked, speechless and completely alarmed, but I also didn't want to offend her. We were in Africa and I didn't know what was "deemed" normal. Plus I had just seen a woman whip her breast out on the street to nurse her baby...so I just held my breath and went with it. After she was finished we were taken to the sauna where I was reunited with Margo and together we sweated our butts off. Margo asked if I'd been violated too. Haha. We both had! Only hers was by a guy and took it to a whole new level--to the point where she had to ask him to stop! I was grateful at that point that I had gotten the woman :) We got lotioned down, paid and hurried our butts out of there! We later asked our suite-mates if that was normal here in Africa. They said no. Freaking heck.

 How's that for an exciting great day in Africa? Gettin' felt up by some locals. And the best part is that 5 days later I ran into my masseuse at a mall and she gave me the BIGGEST hug like we were the best of friends. Of course she remembered me :)
A dinosaur statue outside the massage place. I took this picture for Matix :)

We headed back to our room and happily slept like African princesses! 
Seriously, who hasn't dreamed of having a bed like that? 
(Minus the mosquitoes, ha)

Next up: Jinja, Uganda!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The first stop on our journey to the other side of the world was Dubai. (Well, technically I flew to LA to meet Margo and then we were off to Dubai). We opted for the more expensive flights (approx $2300 because there was only one layover, and it was a good one) to maximize our 10-day trip. We lucked out with a layover in Dubai, but only for a night on the way there and a night on the way back. We both decided that 2 nights in Dubai was NOT going to cut it so I called the airline and found out that extending our layover would only cost $20 more. YES PLEASE. So instead we were in Dubai from Saturday night-Monday morning. PERFECT.
Reunited and oh so excited!
When we boarded our plane we were in shock. I had heard about double decker planes, but had never been on one before. Oh my gosh, our plane was beautiful. We flew Emirates and even though we were in Economy, I felt like we were in 1st class. And it's a dang good thing, because we were about to be on this bad boy for 16 hours straight! That is the longest flight I've been on to date. And then I talked to a steward and found out that 1st class tickets were $18,000 and they got enclosed rooms. Ridiculous right? I can't even imagine having that much money. I sat next to a mom and son, aisle seat and it was a really great flight. I slept a ton. Watched a ton of movies (they had like 100 to choose from..I settled for The Bieber Movie,American Hustle,Divergent, and Labor Day), visited Margo since we didn't sit next to each other. Read a book (The Fault in Our Stars) Ate three meals. etc. etc. etc. That flight was so long but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Not bad at all. The lady next to me even said I was her friend and hugged me goodbye :)
Since I kind of took the initiative to plan Uganda, I asked Margo to plan Dubai. The way I have found that I personally love to travel is to do your research beforehand--educate yourself on where you're going but not to really book anything in advanced. I do this because I don't want to be tied down to certain plans. I want to have the freedom to go where I want, and do what I want when I want. You can't always trust what you read online and every person's experience is different. I just cringe at the thought of missing flights/tours, missing opportunities, or booking things that are super inconvenient. And you really don't know those things until you are there! Every country and every trip is so different. This method has worked out super well for me on all my past trips, so that's what we did. 
Margo did a great job researching Dubai and making a tentative plan for our time in Dubai. We seriously did SO MANY things on our short visit. Throughout the day all we could say to each other was "is this really life?" But is was it most definitely was. 
We landed at 7:30 pm. We had expected to get to do a lot that night, especially since we weren't very tired after sleeping and relaxing for the past 16 hours. Little did we know that we would be walking into a dream. The Dubai airport is unlike anything I have ever seen...it was basically a mall. Beautiful. Clean. Waterfalls. High-End shopping. Prayer rooms. Etc. We walked around aimlessly for hours I think. By the time we left the airport it was around 9:30. 
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We took the subway a few stops to The Dubai Mall. We were definitely the minority on there. Welcome to the middle east. The Dubai Mall (I just found out) is the largest mall in the world based on total area (5.9 million square feet) and is one of the world's most visited shopping and leisure destinations. It's freaking huge!! From the subway we had to walk on the world's largest (I'm sure) walkway. Good thing there were moving sidewalks to help us out. It was insane. There is a luxury hotel in there, movie theaters, an aquarium, an ice rink, 635 retailers and 120 restaurants! INSANE RIGHT? Then you walk outside and there's a huge plaza with the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) and the Dubai Fountain (a water show made by the same company that built the Bellagio's...only bigger--the world's largest in fact!) We made it just in time to catch the last show of the evening at 11pm. We were overwhelmed with what to do next...but after we saw a sign for Shake Shack we could think of nothing else! We were on a mission to find it and then we feasted while using the free wi-fi to find our hotel for the night. We found some pretty good deals for hotels online but we didn't book anything because typically in foreign travels (in my experience) the online rate is more than the in-person rate. Wrong. We got to the hotel and the room that we saw for $60 was now $100 and it was now after midnight so we couldn't get the deal online anymore so we walked the streets looking for somewhere else because we were so mad at the guy at the desk (he was a jerk) and we figured he'd want out business but to no avail we walked forever, found nothing and then (with our heads hung down) we had to come back and take is stupid offer and give in. We did however get the deal for the next night so it was still our cheapest option and the hotel was super nice! 

NOTE TO SELF: IN DUBAI...BOOK THINGS ONLINE. haha
The next day we got a good night's rest and headed out at about 8:30 am. We had a busy day ahead of us! First thing we did was take the subway back to the mall to book our desert safari and head to the top of the Burj Khalifa. Again we should have booked those tickets online ahead of time because you can't book them online day and they were cheaper online. However, it's hard to know the exact time you will make it there and if you miss your time you miss your time. Luckily, it all worked out and by the time we got there they had an opening right then. If it didn't work out like that, we would have been screwed. So I would recommend booking the day before online, when you know what time you can make it there by. Our plans just changed so much it was hard to figure things out too far in advanced! Anyways, we got our tickets and ran our little booties off to the entrance and made it just in time. The elevator ride felt like I was in a Star Wars game but the view was spectacular! We were 2,722 feet high and all the buildings below, that a few minutes ago seemed so tall, now looked like little miniature toys. It was insane! We were so. high. up. You could even see the World Islands from there. Learn more about those here. We stayed up there for almost two hours taking pictures and just taking it all in. Breathtaking. I imagine doing it at night would be pretty rad too. :)

Going UPPPP the elevator!
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After we came down from being "At the Top" we took the subway to another mall called the Mall of the Emirates. On our way we caught a glimpse of the only 7 star hotel in the world, the Burj Al Arab.
We had one reason and one reason only for going to The Mall of the Emirates and that was to SKI DUBAI! Obviously it is freaking hot in Dubai (110 degrees) and the rest of the middle east, so they have no mountains to board at. And if you ain't got mountains, why not build one...in the the mall!? Yes. Skiing in the mall. It doesn't get any crazier than that ladies and gentleman. 
We walked in like this...
and changed into this. 
It was the oddest, coolest, funnest thing. It was only $60 and it included a snowsuit, socks, boots, board (everything but a beanie and gloves...thanks goodness for doing our research!)  The mountain was small, obviously. One lift and basically one run but you know what? We had music jammin' the whole time and we made so many friends! Everyone wanted to snowboard with us! In fact we started riding the lifts with people and some of them had said they'd never been before but they just went for it. It was a really freaking fun time. 
Snowboarding in a mall. 
Check that off my bucket list. 
We gave ourselves about 2 hours (plenty of time) and then we got picked up straight from the mall to go on our next adventure. 

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Next we were off to our desert safari. In Dubai you can go from freezing out bums off (they keep it about 30 degrees in Ski Dubai) to sweating in the middle of the Arabian Desert. In just about 30 minutes we found ourselves outside the city, in the middle of nowhere. We turned off the highway and into a dream. Sandhills for miles and miles and miles and we were about to conquer them! Yes, we went off roading, or dune-bashing as they call it!!! It was SO MUCH FUN! Our driver was insane. We could not stop laughing hysterically. Up and down and around and around. I swore a hundred times that we were going to flip and die. Our driver assured us that if we flipped (it happened) we would not die because of the metal rail that surrounded the car. haha.  It was crazy. But we enjoyed every second of it.
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After about an hour of dune-bashing they took us to a desert camp that appeared out of nowhere. It was like walking back in time. Exactly how you imagine the middle east. Little tent shops. A stage in the middle. Tables for dinner with pillows to sit on. Henna ladies. A tea lounge. Ornate decor. And of course, camels. We hurried to the camels, since that was what we were most excited about and got the first ride of the evening. It was a dream.
Next we headed to a nearby hill and our driver (who had since developed a crush on me) took us sand-boarding. We wanted to try our skills. It was definitely an experience and gave us a rad view of the camp right at sunset! Breathtaking. I kept being in disbelief that this all was really happening. I was in the middle of the Arabian Desert, sand boarding down a hill. Nuts. 
Us and Driver Guy (M....)
Next we hung out in the camp exploring for a while. We got free henna tattoos, sat down for tea with our new friends and our driver had a blast dressing us in traditional Islamic hijabs.  
After sundown, it was time to eat. They served us a home-made traditional middle eastern meal. It was DELICIOUS. Seriously. So. Good. And then we sat on our pillows enjoying the belly-dancing night show. I know this was a typical tourist thing to do, but it was honestly so rad. It was fun to experience a piece of true middle-eastern culture for a night. Even if Dubai isn't really like this anymore. It was cool to be able to experience that kind of stuff....there in the middle of the Arabian Desert.
As if that wasn't enough. We ended our day swimming in the Persian Gulf but not before getting in a car accident on the way! Yep, I've now been in 2 car accidents on foreign soil! (In Cambodia we hit a dog) We took pictures of the incident and the police almost confiscated my camera! Luckily our driver (Gosh, I wish I knew his name. We never could understand him well enough to know it so we just called him M or would make up some crazy word starting with M) told the police that we were tourists and didn't know it was illegal to photograph the police in uniform! Who knew? Finally we made it to the sea, said goodbye to our driver friend, exchanged numbers, changed and swam in the Persian Gulf. Naked, of course...it wouldn't be a Margo trip otherwise. The beach was beautiful and the water was warm. I wish we could have seen it in the day, but that would just be picky. (The beach was surprisingly busy at 11 at night!) Afterword we snapped a final picture, flagged a taxi and headed back to our hotel to get some much needed sleep for the second half of our vacation.
Secret cop picture...After he made us delete our other ones! :)
Dubai was amazing. Our time there was short but well-spent and quite unreal to be honest. Yes...in one day we were literally on top of the world (or the tallest building in the world, same thing), snowboarded in a mall, dune bashed and sand boarded in the Arabian Desert, got a tattoo (henna), road a camel off into the sunset, swam in the Persian gulf and I got engaged! Oh wait, did I forget to mention that? Yep M.... (I wish I knew his name!) asked me to marry him and move to Dubai and he would take care of me and my son. I politely declined but he remains in my phone as Dubai fiancé, always and forever. (and calls me non-stop)

"u r my one true love. My hart tells me u r tha one for me. The 1 i can luv 4 ever."
It must be true love.

Stay tuned for part 2:
AFRICA!!!