7s Heaven: The HSBC Dubai Rugby 7s

My relationship with my fiancé closely mirrors my relationship with rugby. I began dating Matt seven years ago when I moved in next door to the infamous “rugby house” located strategically between campus, and the bars. If ever a real life “Animal House” were to be, this would have been it. I spent afternoons wrapped up in the antics of the rugby team, weekends supporting our boys in tournaments, and nearly every day with Matt. I quickly came to know this sport as less of a game and more of a culture. A culture that is sometimes difficult to date. Throughout the past seven years I have had my struggles with rugby. I’ve bailed people out of jail in rugby related incidents, nursed concussions, and been thrown out of establishments through mere proximity to this raucous ruck. And I love every single memory. The WWU Warthogs single-handedly made my University years a messy success. This past weekend I attended the Dubai 7s tournament, and similarly to the Hong Kong 7s in 2010, beer was drunk, fun was had, and I again proclaimed (from the top of a table in Irish Village no less) “I love this sport!”

In its 41st year (yes the Dubai 7s are older than the UAE herself) this tournament has seen the same type of growth the UAE boasts. The games moved from the Dubai Exiles ground in 2008 with New Zealand taking first in front of a crowd of 50,000 boisterous fans. That’s the great thing about 7s, it’s anybody’s game. This year my bet was on Fiji after winning their first title in two years at the Gold Coast 7s in Australia, although, if you had asked me over the weekend I would have said Australia because of their handsome, and highly criticized, chartreuse jerseys.

Attire is a vital part of any international 7s tournament. During the Hong Kong 7s in 2010 a friend wound up in jail for taking the field in a polar bear costume, and when he arrived at the slammer he was greeted by a zoo of other costumed fans for what he recalls as “an even better party!” Matt prioritized his ensemble for months prior to this year’s tournament, hiring a Pakistani tailor down the street to make him a custom Elvis suit which he then begged me for weeks to bedazzle.

Dubai can certainly lay claim to some of the world’s most colorful expats, a parade of flamboyance only trumped by the Friday night half-time show in which sky-divers parachuted out of a circling airplane onto the field while camels trotted around the pitch. With all the pomp and rugby spirit in the air I could have been anywhere, Vegas, mardi gras, or a pirate ship on its way to a frat island, but one thing is for certain, wherever you are for your rugby 7s experience, it will be the time of your life!

In the end it came down to England and France, notoriously my two LEAST favorite teams regardless of the sport. I still hold a grudge against the French National Football team for their dirty play against Italy in the 2006 FIFA world cup (slightly hypocritical I know), and I’ll just be frank in saying English sport fans in general are some of my least favorite type. Needless to say England took all in the final game sending fans into immediate and united versions of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Despite a sad ending I still managed to flirt shamelessly with Eagle’s player Nick Edwards (while Matt took photos), score some free beer in an apple dunking contest, eat nothing but crispy bacon all weekend, and watch my favorite sport with my favorite rugger/Elvis impersonator. Hope to see you at the next HSBC 7s!

Want to experience the Dubai 7s?

Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online here, or the day of from the ticketing booth. Hotel: Al Jawhara, near Irish Village. Transportation: There is a FREE shuttle leaving from the stadium parking lot to downtown Dubai as well as taxis waiting at the gate. Parking is also free but not recommended if traffic makes you batty or have been drinking. After Party: Irish Village for a pint and all night dance party.

Sugar, Spice, and Souks: Deira Spice Souk

Photo Credit: Jo Kelly over at

If you came to the United Arab Emirates in search of old world vignettes, tucked in narrow alleyways, filled with magic carpets, Arab men in colorful head scarves and puffs of jasmine flavored incense, you may be disappointed when confronted with the modern city. While Dubai rises high into the clouds with its contemporary sky scrapers, tradition can still be found around every corner. One sure spot to scope the cultural heritage of the UAE is the Deira spice souk, along the Dubai creek.

Starting on the creek’s West bank, visitors can meander through the textile souk, picking through cashmere pashminas, and stalls filled with vibrant fabrics. Beware of zealous merchants going to extremes in order to catch your attention with their goods. Within moments of entering, the vultures descended, not even bothering to circle first before throwing scarves and bangles over my unsuspecting body. The technique worked, and I ended up walking away with a hand stitched garment from Pakistan, a pair of Ali Baba shoes for a very special three year old, and a giant hookah… My arms were in serious need of some pack camel assistance to carry my loot, and I hadn’t even crossed the creek yet!

The real treasure hunt begins on the East bank of the creek, known as Deira. This collection of souks hold spices, gold and other precious trinkets, as well as picture perfect photo ops in every turn. To get across to Deira from the textile souk, simply hop on one of Dubai creek’s Abra boat taxis, costing only 1 dirham, leaving approximately every other second, from wherever you are standing. The abras go across to a few different points along the creek so just gesture toward the spice souk and your driver will make sure you get to where you want to go. Matt wasn’t satisfied with just one ride on the traditional boat, with its cool breeze and ample people watching, but after three trips across I distracted him with a coconut vendor and we finally docked.

At the mouth to the Deira markets is a bustling intersection with bus transfers, water taxi stations, and street vendors selling “Natural Viagra.” Yes the souk really does carry something for everyone. Now one might think that shopping for spices involves buying three lbs of vacuum sealed black pepper at your local Costco, but I assure you, there is so much more sniffing and tasting fun to be had!


I pride myself on a well developed palate, thanks to a few years of traveling and sampling a diverse range of flavors, so I was thrilled when the first vendor we happened upon wanted to test me on my spice knowledge. By sight I passed five out of six spices including: Frankincense, lemon balm, dried rose hips, cinnamon, and saffron. Where I went wrong was failing to identify the Arabic spice combination that is Ras El Hanout. In my defense, this traditional spice combines many of the ingredients I called out in a guessing frenzy including, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric. I can’t wait to take my Summer holiday to the USA next week and deliver a few new salts to the one and only, SaltySeattle!!!

The complexity of layered flavors in Arabic cuisine can be attributed to a long standing history of spice trade throughout India and the Middle East. A trip to the Deira souk provides a look at the rich and spicy history of a nation becoming quickly modernized. Enjoy your backyard grilling and seasoning this July, and save me a salty salmon burger!

Size Matters: The Burj Khalifa


If you are like me, and a large population of Australians, you are intrigued by, and often duped into making detours in order to view “The world’s largest can opener”, or “The longest dreadlock.” While hopping around Australia last Spring I was taken by how many signs I saw for “Broken Hill’s Big Bench” Or The Big Yabby.” I was equally surprised by how many times I stopped and even paid money to view these one-of-a-kind anomalies. When I found out that I was moving to the home of the world’s tallest building, I was thrilled to add another “tallest…” to my list.

A visit to the 127th floor of the Burj Khalifa requires a reservation, made easily in person at the Dubai Mall entrance or for a fraction of the cost, on their secure website. We opted for a an evening visit in order to see the city lit up after the sun went down. I would recommend experiencing the fountain show from both ground level and from the 127th floor. The shows run from 6-11pm weekends, starting every thirty minutes, but make sure to cover your camera and tighten your shala because the spray reaches far into the audience.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa has been surrounded by controversy since its construction began in 2004.  Completed in six years, the building is said to have taken 22 million man-hours, from men who later reported cases of exploitation in the form of low wages and poor living conditions while completing the project. While the total cost of construction reached 1.5 Billion USD, the cost of neglected social responsibility and misery for workers was much greater. It is estimated that laborers, primarily from South Asia, earned as little as $2 USD per day and were forced to continue working as employers confiscated passports. These men often worked 14 hours a day and there are reports of shortages in water and safety eqipment. In 2004 and again in 2006 workers attempted strikes in protest of their unfair labor laws, but were further opressed by police forces. By 2007, 4,000 workers were imprisoned and then deported for participating in protests. Standing in stark contrast to the conditions laborers faced during its construction, the Burj Khalifa is a reminder of the cost of such rapid growth.

Descending the tallest building in the world I heard that little “tick” you make when you have checked another “biggest”, “tallest”, or “oldest” off your travel list. A trip to the Burj Khalifa is not however your run of the mill roadside attraction. With over 28,000 glass panels this impressive sky scraper towers above the innovative city that is Dubai, reminding us that in the United Arab Emirates, the sky may not be the limit.

A is for Abaya, B is for Betsey Johnson

I don’t like to be told what to do. Tricky character trait when faced with the challenge of camouflaging one’s self in the fabric of a culture not your own. After failed attempts to acclimate on the scene by drinking too much tequila in Mexico, or by wearing stilettos on Italian cobblestone until my feet resembled a fresh tomato, I have a new approach to camouflage, actual camouflage! If I can’t weave myself into the fabric of Arabic culture then why not slide my skin into the fabric of the traditional Arabic garb? The abaya stands in my mind as the cornerstone of the world’s often misinterpreted view of Islam. It seems that I have become so fascinated by the history behind the long black veil that I am now wearing one.

I was doing what any party dress whore would be doing on a Saturday afternoon in Dubai, perusing Betsey Johnson for some Summer crazy. “Too much zebra there…the bedazzled mermaid train might weigh me down a bit…wait…is that what I think it is?” On a very special rack, in a very special store I found the ultimate, oxymoronic outfit: A Betsey Johnson abaya. Long, black, with just a hint of flourish in the form of peacock feathers making their way up the train of this otherwise somber gown. SOLD! After carrying my purchase around the Ibn Batuta mall, observing women window shop through their sheer, black veils, I pondered further the origins of the abaya I now owned.

For initial research I turned to Wall Street Journal correspondent Geraldine Brooks. Brooks, who spent six years covering the Middle East, has written a frank collection of essays in Nine Parts of Desire, The Hidden World of Islamic Women. Her book stems from her experience working, living and traveling with the women of Islam directly following the death of Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The timing of Brooks’ trip to the Middle East coincided with a turning point in Islamic history, while the world watched and questioned 1300 years of religion. Brooks points to The Chapter of the Light from the Koran in which it instructs women to “…Lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils…” This chapter in Muslim religious text dates back to the time of Muhammad when it became important for men to view women only from “behind a curtain” in order to preserve a woman’s dignity and lead Muslim men away from temptation. The interpretation of this passage in the Koran has been dissected by theologians, historians, Christians and Muslims alike. But if it is one thing I have learned about culture and religion, these speculations don’t matter.

When I was living in the Northern Italian home to the Shroud of Turin, I discovered that for the devout Catholics, the carbon dating on the shroud to determine if it in deed was pre-dated to the time of Jesus Christ, was a pointless exercise. It was in fact the absence of the Shroud, on its trips to a lab in London, that raised the most upset and discussion among the Italian Catholics. For Muslim women, the question of possible misinterpretation of The Chapter of the Light makes little difference in their devotional practice. From my experience working with a staff of Muslim women, the veil is entirely a choice, important as much to their religion as to their exercises in social freedom. The veil allows these women to go out in public gaze, confident that they are preserving their virtuosity.

During his eight year rule of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi imposed a modernization of the Middle East that again questioned women’s rights, particularly their dress. Women were discouraged from wearing their veils in an attempt to westernize the Arab state under the Shāh’s rule. The result was Muslim women retracting from public, leaving their jobs, their education, and staying in doors where they could avoid the gaze from men outside their immediate family. The veil symbolizes a discourse in Muslim culture that can not be easily radicalized and abandoned.

The women I have befriended in the UAE wear their abayas and veils as a symbol of their devotion, they wear them because their mothers and grandmothers wore have worn them since the time of Muhamed. The surprising twist is that they wear them as a fashion statement too! Slouchy Z is just one of the fashion houses to modernize the abaya, following fashion trends from the West and incorporating these into their designs for the Spring/Summer 2011 collection. Although the garment’s roots are sewn into the cultural heritage of the Middle East, the Abaya must also function as a piece of clothing, changing from one decade to the next. Within the all female staff in the school where I teach, a wide range of abaya interpretations can be found. Some women opt for a somber, black robe, while others find flourish wherever possible, carrying jewels sewn to hemlines and wide, Morticia Addams inspired sleeves. My Abaya represents my attempt to understand and participate in this 1300 year old tradition of covering oneself, and at the same time bringing the party back to party dress wherever in the world I find myself.

Happy Summer dress shopping!

A Taste of Dubai

Every city has its niche. None compete with Chicago Blues, Melbourne street art, or Hong Kong Dim sum chefs. If I were to pin-point Dubai’s most notable expertise it would be the city’s deliberate interweaving of architectural styles, cultures, fashions and cuisine. There was no better representation of this than last weekend’s Taste of Dubai set to a pan sizzling soundtrack and against the backdrop of media city. The yearly event boasted big name chefs Gary Rhodes, Jun Tanaka, and a sampling from restaurants new to the Dubai scene like the much talked about Ivy, set to open in May. The best part of the event, besides a gorgeous day, plenty of schmoozing and the goody bags was of course the ample wine selection…which is why most of my reporting comes from my experiences earlier in the day….before I came out of the lady’s wearing a different pair of shoes?

Dubai is a four hour trek from our home in the Western Ruwais desert, but I woke with a craving for tapas and the big city so we made the trip, checking into the event without even dropping our bags at the hotel first. The festival celebrated its fourth year in style with twenty-two restaurants serving up International fare. Between cigar pairings in the MMI lounge and crispy fish n’ chips it was difficult to decipher a favorite tasting, until I got to Certo. Chef Matteo Bertuletti’s rumored goat cheese, blueberry and porcini ravioli dish had me happily in line. An hour later, finished with my ravioli I was still in the Certo tent, Montalcino in one hand and strawberries drenched in balsamic in another, convincing me that returning to Italy would ensure that I never went hungry again.

With so much international food abundantly available in the UAE it is a shame to admit I still have a list of fare that I consistently miss while living overseas. Avocados is on that list for me, a really pricey and rare treat in many parts of the world, so you can imagine my version of a zig-zagged b-line upon spying a table of beautiful Has avocados ripe as can be. The man standing next to this table was of course an added bonus, Ruben Herrera executive chef of Maya by Richard Sandoval located inside Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort and Spa. Ruben was gracious enough to whip up some guacamole for us and let me pick his brain about the challenges of bringing Mexican food to an international audience. Ingredients for many dishes, from a simple pico de gayo to chile relleno are often difficult to find and Ruben remarked on his resistance to settle for anything but the most fresh and traditional ingredients. The hotel offers a weekend lunch at 300AED for use of all pools and facilities as well as lunch from Maya. Advance bookings required.

The celebrity stage and cooking demo classes brought food patrons, amateur chefs and culinary celebrities together in a fun way! Well known for over a dozen cook books and television show “Rhodes around Britain,” chef Gary Rhodes excited the crowd about his food and even gave a few pointers after admitting his aversion to mechanized  tools in favor of an old fashioned “hand whipped” approach. Prior to chef Rhodes was the impeccable Jun Tanaka who prepared steamed sea bass in an orange glaze so mouth-watering that the stage was rushed faster than a Justin Bieber concert in order to snag a bite.

With the evening winding down I grabbed a spot in the last cooking class of the evening with the adorable and highly talented chef Scott Price from Verre, to prepare a seared sea bass and cauliflower puree. Always the good student I grabbed a station in the front and made sure my apron cleared the bunsen burner, can’t say the same for other chefs during our course. With the menu translated into nine languages, cooking with chefs I have only previously seen on the food network who have travelled tremendous distances, and drinking an Asti Spumante imported from a region I have not visited in nearly six years, I saw Dubai not merely a melting pot for culture but as a city epitomising the postmodern ideal. Quick to grow into a world renowned hub for international cuisine, Dubai’s food makes this city a unique place to nosh. Hopefully I’ll see you back next year at Taste of Dubai!

Sand Sand Everywhere: First and Last Desert Safari

The sun may go down in the UAE but the fire still burns bright. Atop a tall spire, not quite as far in the desert distance as I would like is an instant reminder that I live in a country with the seventh largest oil reserve. This reminder, along with an expansive sand box for a backyard and a sea of women cloaked in black abayas, is exactly what I hoped for when I signed on for a year in the United Arab Emirates: to be culture shocked beyond a recognizable doubt…or anything recognizable for that matter. Oddly enough I search for these giant torches in the sky as something to break up the monotony of sand, on evenings when I could swear no life force besides myself is stirring across mile after mile of desert. While wandering through the desert may feel futile, camping in the desert is just the adventure necessary to bring this landscape to life, and I was fortunate enough to see for myself last week as I embarked on my first desert safari with  Happy Linkers tour company.

Happy Linkers operates daily trips out of Dubai with pick-ups from the Dubai Mall. So, along with fifty SABIS teachers I dawned my smartest camel riding attire and rode deep in to the Arabian desert for a night to remember. By 10 PM, hands fully henna’d, lungs brimming with sheesha, and visions of belly dance fairies shimmying in my head, the hot, white sky over the Arabian desert had switched off and the headliner entertainment came on, full horse….I mean full force. The “Horse Dance” is based off a long standing adoration with the Arabian breed, dating back nearly 4500 years. The show itself was reminiscent of a fantastic Halloween costume a friend galloped around Bellingham in whereby he represented the front half of a unicorn, laying the weight of the back half on a pair of roller skates. He easily zip from one party to the next without slowing down enough to have his tail pulled. The two men operating the horse for the safari performance must have a system worked out or at least a coin toss before shows to flip for who gets stuck in the rear.

After some Arabian rump shaking, sword swallowing and whirling dervishes, the desert reminded me of its presence and vastness by doing something that any “I told you so” landscape might do. Just when I was beginning to think of the desert as predictable, that same white sky that had just a few hours earlier cooled itself into a an indigo night cover, opened up its menacing eyes and cried great big rain drops onto our camp. I ran for a tent, Matt ran under a camel and just like that I had been tricked by the land.

The safari was my first and last time I will sign on to willingly sleep in the desert as a recreational activity, not necessarily because when the unmistakably hot sun goes out the temperature quickly drops, not because camels are far from being cuddly creatures and not because a sand pillow is much less comfortable than a bean bag chair, but because the desert scares me. It is as mysterious to me still as the first class lounge and as unpredictable as a Middle Eastern revolution. I am walking away with a losing record: Desert 1, Teach Travel Play nil.