Expat Panda is where I share the journey of my life as a 20 something, married, South African expat living in the Middle East. I began Expat Panda because I wanted to keep and share a record of my life and encourage other teachers to travel. So you can expect all sorts of tips for what it’s really like to live in the Gulf.
I always say that ‘anything is possible’ in Dubai and after this weekend, I believe it even more! No one would ever think that 75 million flowers can be seen in a Middle Eastern country… But they exist in full bloom at Dubai Miracle Garden.
With a 45AED entrance fee, I wondered what to expect from this place before we entered. As you walk into the park, the cloying scent of flowers hits you first before you see anything. It was an aroma evocative of summers past and it transported me back to my childhood spent reading in the garden. I liked the feeling. Dubai Miracle Garden exhibits more than 100 million different flowering plants spread over 70,000 square meters making it the largest natural flower garden in the world (and also, explains the scent!).
As we walked around, I realised that I have seen many things in this world. Many world wonders, many beautiful people, many appetising dishes and many architectural masterpieces. BUT I have NEVER- not even in my wildest dreams- see flowers displayed in so many different ways as I did at Miracle Garden. Not at all.
So lets take a look at what you can see at this desert miracle:
Butterflies made of flowers
A teddy bear made of flowers
A plane made of flowers
A Muslim lady wearing flowers
A castle made of flowers
Cottages made of flowers
Flower pots with a flowery design
A clock made of flowers
Swans made of flowers
A frog made of flowers
An arabian dhow boat decorated with flowers
Bloody hell. I did not it was possible to do so many interesting things with flowers!
Welcome to my first (and hopefully not last) blog post for a certain Panda’ website. Hot on the heels of my recent international trip to the United Arab Emirates, I was asked to share my experiences for the benefit of those wanting to visit this Middle Eastern country who want something more than the usual Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall visits. I should probably say I was not coerced into writing this post but then again… I don’t want to lie.
Having never traveled abroad before, I wanted to see the sights that were dearest to me on my first international trip: my crazy sisters: Expat Panda and Expat Pug! No other reason really drew me to the UAE because I knew that no matter what I did, nothing could be more special than spending quality time with two of my favourite people in the country where they are living their dreams! (Also Panda and Pug had new wardrobes that were begging to be shared with me- what else are sisters for?)
I follow Panda’s blog avidly. Her PPG lessons and our continuous texts have given me a clear idea of what life in the UAE is like. Although both her and Pug had explained that expats constituted most of the population I was still surprised to see so many different nationalities in a country that is almost 15 times smaller than South Africa. It was difficult to decipher people when they spoke but for the most part, everyone was friendly when approached and helpful. Panda and I planned to maximize my time in the UAE so we decided to do as many activities as possible while I was there. These are some of the experiences I had and my honest ratings (introducing the penguin rating scale!):
Zaya Nurai Island (Abu Dhabi)
One of the things I didn’t anticipate in the UAE was strange weather phenomena. Imagine my surpise to discover that winters in the UAE are characterized by the thickest fog I have ever seen.
On the day we were scheduled to take the boat to Zaya Nurai Island, the fog was particularly thick and we had to wait a few hours before we could catch the boat to the island (something to consider if you book to go during Dec/Jan). For those of you who don’t know, Zaya Nurai Island is a privately owned island home to a 5 star resort. We went as day visitors because… well you should see what it costs to stay there for a night…
I only look rich… I’m not the sister with actual money
After the morning fog had disappeared Panda and I took a quick boat ride to the island. The island had some stunning scenery which consisted of clear waters, white sand and an inviting swimming pool; day visitors are allowed to use the pools, private beach and can basically eat for free at the restaurants because you get a 350AED food and beverage voucher to spend during your visit.
However, our merry island frolicking was marred by the poor customer service by staff on the island. Panda and I were waiting to be attended to at the Smoking Pineapple restaurant for far too long and we were abruptly told we had to leave the island midway through dessert as the last boat would leave the island at 5pm due to inclement weather (blue skies and sunshine prevailed as seen in the photos).
All of staff seemed to be confused about this information and not wanting to be stuck with them through the night we we rushed off (mid-chew) to find a buggy to return us to reception… Only to wait another 20 minutes before being fetched and then we had to wait a further half an hour before we actually boarded the boat at 6pm (which means we had more than enough time to finish our meal!). The staff in general were rude, lazy, inattentive and ditzy. I would advise you to go here if you have oodles of patience to deal with the incompetence- Panda and I are pretty patient from tolerating each other (and 2 other siblings!) for all these years but our limits were being tested!
Louvre Museum (Abu Dhabi)
Born of an agreement between the governments of Abu Dhabi and France, the Louvre Abu Dhabi displays art, manuscripts and objects of historical, cultural and sociological significance. Even though I consider myself an art amateur- I know the famous works that should be known but that’s about it- I was quite impressed by the pieces that the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi offered. Just thinking about how the artifacts had survived through the ages and were now displayed close enough for me to gawk at every angle blew my mind.
Everyone has that one destination they’ve been fantasising about for years. For a traveling panda, I have quite a few but Ireland has always been at the top of my list. Why you may ask? It’s just a tiny island known for potatoes and rain right? No no. You are so wrong my friend. Ireland is about so much more than Guiness and good craic.
Ireland- isn’t that part of the United Kingdom you may ask? Well… not quite! That means its time for a PPG- Panda Progressive Geography lesson!
Ireland is called Éire in Irish and is also known as the Republic of Ireland. Ireland covers five-sixths of the island of the same name, the remaining one-sixth of the island is Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Irish, or Gaelic, is the country’s first official language, however the second official language- English- is more commonly spoken. Throughout much of its history, Ireland fought against rule by Great Britain. Most of the island gained independence in the 1920s. However, Britain continues to control Northern Ireland. In the 1990s the independent republic of Ireland became a successful member of the European Union hence why they use the Euro as their currency!
Travel along Sky Road (Galway) for amazing sunset views!
So why should Ireland be your next holiday destination? Let’s investigate a few reasons why:
1. It’s so easy to get around
Panda and Penguin rented a car (for €9 a day, it seemed a shame not to), and driving in Ireland was incredibly easy. From the fantastic signage to the well developed roads, it was well worth driving around. However, there are plenty of buses linking the major cities, tour buses to the major attractions and of course an efficient public transportation cities within cities and towns.
Driving through Ireland is the perfect way to explore, based on my experience. The roads are simply wonderful… There are some major highways, but for the most part I drove along country roads and winding paths cut through farms and along the shear cliffs of its wild and ragged coastline. I have to admit that while driving may be the best way to experience the country, once you hop in the car, be prepared to stop and stop often. I remember one day of driving where the scenery around every corner was so beautiful that I just had to make the decision not to stop anymore, otherwise I would never have reached my final destination for the day. That’s a hard decision for someone traveling and exploring to make, but it’s one that all of us traveling to Ireland have to mentally compromise on.
The benefits of driving however (if you can), mean that you have the opportunity to stop on side of the road to capture castles:
Within Dublin and Galway its super easy to walk everywhere or use the tram or bus system.
2. Lush landscapes:
Even in the depths of winter, Ireland was green and verdant all through the countryside… I can only imagine how much more beautiful it would be in spring or summer. People complain about the rain in Ireland but if its the abundance of rain that keeps the country looking this lush then I don’t see a point in complaining!
Earlier this year my husband of three years and best friend of twelve years, asked me for a divorce. You know him better as Fox: Panda’s partner in photography, travel and adventure.
Well… not anymore.
Divorce is something I never expected because we had always been happily married and secure in our love… but as I found out, he didn’t feel the same way. Its been a few months now since he asked me and I begrudgingly agreed but I am learning that there are certain wounds that never heal, certain hurts that never leave you alone; like a broken bone that heals wrong and always twinges when it’s about to rain. Every time I reach to twirl my wedding ring around my finger, its absence sets off a wave of hurt and then there are the times where I want to tag him in something he would like on Instagram… its a physical pain that threatens to overwhelm. As you can imagine, the last few months have been excruciating but this post isn’t actually about all of that. My pain is my own to wade through and make sense of. But as I come to terms with my new future, I wish Fox every happiness in the world including a happily ever after even though- I now know- it won’t be with me.
“You’re going to Georgia? You mean you are flying all the way to the United States just for a long weekend?”
That was the response I received when I answered people’s question of, “Where are you traveling to for the long weekend?”
To be honest I don’t blame them; the world is a large place and a lot of smaller countries are overshadowed by the more popular destinations. I was obviously not talking about Georgia, the U.S. state… I was talking about Georgia, the Eastern European country. Now when I say Eastern Europe, people immediately think of Slovenia, Hungary, Romania… Georgia never features on their radar. With that being said, I think we all know that its time for a PPG- Panda’s Progressive Geography lesson!
The Republic of Georgia is located in Eurasia, between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Their currency is called Georgian Lari and the spoken language is Georgian.
Georgian history dates back more than 2,500 years; in the past, much of Georgia’s territory was besieged by its Persian and Turkish neighbors along with Arabs and Mongols over the course of the 7th to the 18th centuries. After 11 centuries of mixed fortunes of various Georgian kingdoms, , Georgia turned to Russia for protection. Georgia was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Independent for three years (1918-1921) following the Russian Revolution, it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR and its royalty exiled. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, post-communist Georgia endured civil unrest and economic crisis for most of the decade, but has been more stable under democratic government in the 21st century.
Recently the United Arab Emirates celebrated their National Day thus giving us a nice little 4 day weekend which was the perfect excuse for this Panda to gather up a friend and catch a flight to Georgia. Besides a close proximity to the Middle East (its only a 3.5 hour flight from the UAE) and the fact that its cheap as chips (it really is inexpensive), there are a few other reasons that make Georgia the perfect weekend getaway from the Middle East (or anywhere else really):
– WOW! The Landscapes!
For being such a small country, Georgia has quite an array of landscapes. Tbilisi is a tiny city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Located between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s varied landscapes packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea beg for attention alongside snow-covered slopes.
Expat Lynx and I started our holiday in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi… the quaint homes perched atop the slopes of the city are reason enough to visit this pretty capital. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighbourhoods. Sweet, shady trees along streets reminded me of roads in Prague and Cape Town simultaneously.
But head out of Tblisi for an hour to see some rather different landscapes like this little church complex in Ananuri overlooking the sparkling turquoise-colored Aragvi River and Zhinvali Reservoir. How gorgeous is this view framed by the mountains?
And move out even further by driving another hour or two to Guduari where you need to prepare to have your breath taken away by this wintery wonderland…
And these landscapes are just the tip of the iceberg! I think I could stay a week in Georgia and not explore the many different diverse landscapes on offer in this small gem of a country!
– Ooh La La! The Architecture!
Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible everywhere you go in Georgia… its incredible really. If someone showed me these photos I would have a hard time guessing that they were taken in Tbilisi, Georgia!
Whenever people hear that I have a blog (a piece of information usually revealed by someone in my company and not myself), it’s almost always followed by the remark:
“Oh! How glamorous!”
I never how to respond to that because of two reasons:
-Being a blogger can seem quite glamorous. Lifestyle, fashion and beauty bloggers are the popular kids in the blogosphere. They look fabulous in all their photos with their carefully curated flatlays, envy inducing wardrobes and let me not get started about their flawless make up and hairstyles (Sometimes I want to reach through the screen and touch their skin. I understand why men become creepy stalkers when I see their pictures). They have fan pages dedicated to themselves and there’s the whole business of parties and free products. I see you ladies and I admire you!
Messy hair, no eyeliner and panda earrings- thats me!
-But the reason I can’t justify that remark or never know how to respond to it because well… being an expat blogger can be distinctly dull.
But why you may ask? Aren’t you on an extended holiday? You’re off seeing the world- that’s thrilling! Well… not quite.
Here are 5 reasons why I don’t consider the kind of blogging I do to be particularly glamorous:
1. We live here… that’s come with responsibilities
When I travel, my priority is to have a great time exploring a new place. Seeing the sights, sampling new cuisine, photographing the landscapes… sigh. I really do love to travel. HOWEVER- when I’m an expat, my priority is to SURVIVE with no minimal problems. That means I’m far less concerned about living it up and am more concerned with paying my bills, making sure I have petrol in my car and buying groceries- just like you! Then why are you blogging, you may ask? Well, judging from the heaps of emails and comments I get here on the blog about life in the Middle East (especially from ladies), it seems that people want to know about the mundane details of living in a foreign land! As for that extended holiday… I don’t know anyone who would call going to work everyday, furnishing an apartment and sorting out visa paperwork as a ‘holiday’ but thats just me.
But just sometimes I mange to escape the responsibilities and run off to a camel farm!
2. We don’t always look good and we don’t party on a regular basis
Where did this misconception come from that we bloggers are all out there sending our days standing in front of cute walls and at night, doing the blow-a-kiss-over-your-shoulder pose at a fancy parties. I WISH I had the time and I also wish I had more cute dresses to wear to parties. But seriously though. There’s a reason my face is never really in the pictures on my blog or on my Instagram. I just can’t be bothered to do the whole make up and hair business. Give me a camera with a sunrise and I will flourish. Give me a hair iron & a contour kit and… I will be confused.
Case in point… its 6am in this pic and there is a reason my hair is out of control & you can’t see my face!
I cannot express my admiration for bloggers who are out there reviewing beauty products while I am just sitting around waiting for those blog posts so I don’t waste my time and effort on useless products!
3. We are on a never-ending revolving emotional rollercoaster
So one of the drawbacks of being an expat, more especially an expat blogger, is that you are constantly stuck between two (or more) worlds and consequently, always climbing a mountain of guilt as a result. And you cannot always blog about it! Let me explain further: at the beginning of this year, my mum (Mummy Panda I guess we could say) had a terrible accident and couldn’t walk for most of the year. All of this happened while I was traveling in Sri Lanka. There was nothing I could do or offer and I was isolated from sharing in the family pain, being the only one living in the Northern Hemisphere. Although tragedies like this don’t happen often (Mummy Panda is mobile again after months of bedrest and physiotherapy) but you do frequently feel guilty about living your life away from your loved ones.
Can you tell that I am suffering through a family tragedy in this pic snapped in Sri Lanka?
Even when you do return home it isn’t the sweet reunion you anticipate it to be- you feel that your old friends have moved on without you or you feel you can no longer fully relate to family because your life experiences have been so different. Blogging about these sort of things is difficult because you feel you may hurt your family/friends or just seem whiny because after all- you CHOSE to leave,
We miss birthdays, anniversaries, funerals and so many monumental milestones in the lives of our loved ones… There is nothing cool about this aspect of expat life believe me!
4. We actually have very little tangible talents
So as I mentioned, most of us expat bloggers can’t do a perfect winged eyeliner or stay up past midnight (guilty!). Photography is just our hobby to supplement our the tales of our life here and the stuff we write about is more a personal account of our lives rather than any sparkling political commentary. So no- we don’t seem to have any tangible talents. But let me tell you what we do have- undefinable superpowers. We can have an entire conversation using body language and hand gestures in order to achieve what we want with people who don’t understand us. We can field through stacks of bureaucratic paperwork- in a language we can’t even read- in order to live legally. We can cry our way into countries, flirt with police officers in basic Arabic, eat whatever is put in front of us in order to respect local culture and drive on all sorts of terrain in foreign lands. Or maybe I am the only one who does such things?!
Not hard to deny food when it looks like this!
When you say to me, “I could never do what you do!”, its probably true. You couldn’t do these crazy things in a familiar place where you might be concerned about how you would be perceived. At home, you often feel under pressure of social conventions but once you are out there on your own, you realize you can do whatever you want. But in a new place where no one knows you or would report back to your parents… you embrace the unhinged nature of being an expat and let the crazy spew forth both in real life life and later, on to your blog!
5. We have nowhere to run home to
Well guys this is it. I am not writing about my kayaking experience in Abu Dhabi once I am safely in my home country, surrounded by people I love. I live here in Abu Dhabi, by myself, and this is my home for now. Traveling is a scary experience of course but let me tell you something- you always have that, “Soon I will be out of here mindset”. Its only when the dust has settled that reality kicks in and expat life proves this to you very quickly. The very things you find funny or quirky as you travel through a country as a tourist can just get plain frustrating when you have to live with them every day. A language barrier, rude shop assistants, bad drivers, people cutting in line, lack of personal space, attitudes towards gender, sexuality or religion can all become big issues when you’re living in a foreign land for a prolonged period of time. Sometimes it eats you away inside because you want to blog about it all but the truth is that you know these frustrations are just personal gripes and since you made the decision to move here, you have to suck it up and deal! I also feel that if a country is generous to allow me to work and live there, I have to be just as accepting of their quirks and idiosyncrasies as they clearly tolerate mine!
There is nowhere to slide to except the bottom of the dune… and then you have to climb back up again!
It is also worth me mentioning that living in the Middle East means there are lots of things I CAN’T blog about while I live in a particular country because this is the price I pay for enjoying the life I live here. Remember how I laid it all bare when I left Kuwait? I couldn’t be that honest while I lived there. This is one of the drawbacks of being an expat blogger depending on where you live.
The truth is once you realise that this is “home” and that there is nowhere to run, the smoother your whole living abroad experience will be!
To be honest…
Expat life isn’t easy and it isn’t for everyone. But even with all of these challenges, I wouldn’t change my expat experience for anything. For me, the benefits far outweigh the challenges and even on days when expat life sucks, I know it’s making me a stronger, more flexible person. Every day I learn something new as I’m getting familiar with my environment no matter which country I live in– sometimes it makes me happy, sometimes desperate and sometimes surprised but I do not get tired of it!
As unglamorous as it may be, I believe being an expat blogging is one of the best ways to educate people about new places from the perspective of someone who is seeing their environment through fresh and untainted eyes. Although it isn’t always one big adventure, it does have moments that take your breath away and make you feel like you’re on an episode of Sex & the City!
Standing on the terrace of the world’s most expensive hotel! Wait, what?!
What are some of the misconceptions you have/have heard about expat bloggers? Do let me know in the comments below!
One of the few goals I had when I started this blog was to dispel some myths about the Middle East. It’s been over a year since I started doing just that and even though the nature of the myths I’m dispelling has since changed, here I am still using my words and photos as weapons to challenge perceptions!
One of these perceptions that people have is that landscapes in the Middle East consist of one of two things:
Towering, dazzling skyscrapers that frame the horizon
Dry and dusty desert dunes shaped by the scorching sun
Of course these two sceneries do exist- all over the Middle East- in abundance. But of course, there is more than meets the eye (if you know what to look for). Like this beautiful sunset:
Oh yes, greenery and blueness exists. It’s just a matter of uncovering this beauty.
Over the weekend one of the Expat Felines and I headed out to explore Mangroves National Park by kayak in Abu Dhabi. It was a 15 minute drive from our island but seemed like a world away!
We booked our kayak through Hydro Marine Sports although there are lots of water sport companies along the promenade and after the briefest of instructions with a perfunctory glance at a map, we were in our tandem kayak and off we went!
I should mention that Expat Lion- my trusty kayaking partner- was stuck sitting behind me and doing most of the hard work since this Panda was busy taking pictures with one phone and three cameras (BLOGGER LIFE). So thanks Lion!
She is awesome (Like all my friends).
The sea mirrored the sky above, both of them the kind of blue that colours those impossibly bright tourist brochures. The breeze that ran unchecked over the rippled surface blew my curls away from my eyes and brought colour to Lion’s pale cheeks. The sweet winter air was fragranced with the mangroves that circled the water, growing so close that some had toppled in and others dangles cobra-thick roots into the water.
Looking through the water was like peering though perfect glass, unsmudged by the sticky prints of small children. I inhaled slowly. Peace. My little piece of heaven in the urban jungle.
We picked the perfect time to kayak- just before sunset. Abu Dhabi..
Bahrain isn’t a country high on people’s destination list. Most people go to tick it off their country list or they find themselves there because of a long layover with Gulf Air or… for some particular reason other than tourism. I found myself in Bahrain last weekend in the exact same position- I was there to visit my travel wife for life– Expat Bee!
Its been a long couple of months since we had last seen each other at Munich Airport in July so this visit was long overdue. One of the major struggles we expats have is that most of the time, the people we love live really far away. I’m fortunate that one of my closest friends only lives a 45 min flight away which is really NOTHING if I think of my other besties who live in South Africa (8 hour flight away) and Macau (10.5 hours). So off to Bahrain I went!
Actual footage of me flying across the Middle East
Now if you have been reading this blog for a while, you will recall that I went to Bahrain earlier this year and was less than enamoured. However I am pleased to say that this trip made me a lot happier… something to do with no expectations and all that (the advice I give but do not take).
Yes there are few must sees in Bahrain like the forts, wildlife park and souk BUT if you find yourself in Bahrain and want something different then what should you do?
I hear you arguing with me that there are perfectly good beaches in Abu Dhabi/Dubai/Kuwait etc.
I am not disputing that BUT you aren’t there are you? You’re reading this post because you want to know what to do in BAHRAIN. So let’s look at this picture taken on the island and then discuss the finer details because now your interest is piqued.
Depending on where you are staying in Bahrain, you may have to drive a little more than you anticipate. Bee lives in Riffa so it was only a 20 minute drive from us to the Aldar Island offices however it may be longer if you’re heading from Manama. Here is the location to their ticket office:
You HAVE to HAVE some sort of ID on you (I took my passport but I am sure they would’ve accepted anything else including driver’s licenses) and we waited for around 15 minutes to be escorted to a boat. There is plenty of parking for your car (which you will NOT be taking or needing on the island). For 8BD per adult and 4BD for kids you can catch boat to and from the island once you have you wristband on. The boats leave from Sitra fisherman’s port- which is quite pretty in its own right, and after a 15 minute boat ride ( you get your ID back when you embark on the boat and oh please put your life jacket on) you end up on Al Dar Island.
So what does the island look like? Let’s see.
The coastline was a blaze of huts, bikinis, abayas and kids- all the colours matched the burning sand underfoot. Against the percussion of the sea was the laughter, coming in bursts and rolling like waves.
Loving that unicorn in the corner!
There is a bar and cafe on the island serving food, soft drinks, juices and alcohol (which they will bring right to your chair if you like) but you are free to bring your own picnic basket. Also on the island is a barbecue area, showers, shaded huts for hire and water sports that can be done for an additional fee.
As I walked along the sand, I noticed the tips of shells peeked from holes, made by little creatures, seeking shelter in the soft sand. Mini dunes of beige dust soon to be soaked by the sea, gradually creeping its way further onto shore. The sun’s rays peacefully floated, resting on the warm water.
Bee and I settled into the warm Arabian Gulf and watched as a huge school of fish swam across from us, jumping out of the water at short intervals. I wish I captured it on the camera! But the best thing was just lazing in the sand, water lapping at my feet, my bestie next to me, enjoying a lemon mint drink and watching this incredible sunset.
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