Friday, July 31, 2009

Reunited and it feels so good...

Tree climbing in the desert

We made it home. I was worried that we'd, I dunno, alienate everybody on the plane, that I'd turn into one of those frightening screaming mommies that give nightmares to adults and children alike, that Thomas and Bethy would need therapy and I'd end up in the not-so-funny farm. No worries! The kids were extremely, unbelievably good. We didn't have the smoothest trip ever, but we made the best of it and arrived in essentially one piece. There aren't many photos in this post, and I apologise for that.

I've spent two days trying not to fall asleep on the computer here, and not doing a very good job of it. By day three most of the jetlag has passed. I promised a play-by-play of travelling with the kids alone from Seattle to Dubai, and here is how it went down:

Seattle: the barista dropped my iced latte while handing it out the drive through window. This boded poorly; I'd already managed not to get much sleep to speak of and had forgotten to eat breakfast.

At SeaTac the folks at Budget couldn't check in the car in the parking lot for some reason, (Was I sure I'd rented it at Sea Tac? Yes, yes I was.) so they apologetically sent me and our luggage (once I'd run around and found a luggage cart) to the service desk. I was really nervous about how much of a line there would be; when we'd arrived in Seattle and gone to pick up the car it was packed, but fortunately there was only one customer ahead of me this time. An extremely verbal and angry customer, but hey, he got out of the way fast enough for me to check out. The bill for our rental car: $2623.40.

Colleen and Alex kept ahold of the kids while I tried to check in at the kiosk at Northwest Airlines/KLM/Delta (did I miss anything?) I fought with the thing until a nice attendant came over and assisted me, securing out boarding passes. I stood in line with our luggage for a good while, then another employee informed us that international flights were supposed to take their luggage to the other side of the corridor. So I wheeled over to that line. Got to the front and was told that the luggage tags were on the original side where I'd checked in. Oh, for heaven's sake!

Colleen made a small but very effective fuss and an employee took us under his wing. He fended off 3 or four other frustrated travellers looking for help while he helped us; I hope the airline pays their people well. He fetched the luggage tags and got our stuff checked in so we didn't have to wait any longer. I said good-bye to the luggage and hoped it didn't end up in Deluth.

Rounding the corner, now freed of the checked luggage at least, our party was appalled to see the magnitude of the security lines. They went on forever! They had employees holding signs to show where the end of the lines were. I had given us hours and hours before the flight, and now I was glad. Usually I err the other way, but I have a deep-seated fear of not only missing the plane, but then having to explain such to Mike.

Colleen took the kids to the side and set up a DVD for them to watch on her portable player (impressive!) and I waited in line. The line, seemingly endless, proceeded thorough security really fast. Kudos to the SeaTac staff. I had thought it would take hours, but not so; we moved along beautifully. Too soon for Colleen and the kids, I think, it was time for a last hug good-bye, I leashed up Thomas, and we moved out.

The leash works great for going through the metal detectors, by the way. He goes, then I go, and nobody gets lost.

Mike had suggested that a way to make the trip go smoothly was to give lots and lots of choices to the kids. Silly things like where should we sit to put our shoes back on? and elevator or escalator? I was working that angle to exhaustion and the kids totally went for it. Good thing too, because when the train dumped us off at concourse S the doors opened to a solid wall of people's backs.

The escalator had broken and they had one poor employee allowing people to go up the stairs in groups of 3 or fewer with about 10 seconds of delay between each group. (Who wants THAT job?!) Every 6 minutes or so the shuttle train would arrive again and more passengers would pack out into the waiting area. You know it was bad because flight attendants were snarling and complaining. Bethy and Thomas were getting squished and conked in the head by various and sundry parts of people and luggage, but we eventually made it through, still in plenty of time to catch our flight.

The way the first plane (an Airbus A-330) was laid out the seats were in groups of either 2 or 4. Unfortuantely Thomas, Bethy and I make up for a grand total of three. I had mentally tried out various scenarios as to how to seat the kids, but had come again and again to the same conclusion; that Bethy would be in the aisle seat, me in the middle of the two kids as a buffer, and Thomas sandwiched in next to me and beside some poor hapless unsuspecting stranger.

We were in our seat before our victim arrived. A young man, perhaps 30, with pale skin, curly blond hair and a distinctly European look. His accent confirmed that he was Dutch, and a very nice man indeed. He assured me he was tolerant and didn't mind at all sitting next to Thomas. In fact, the stewardess mistook him for Thomas' father, an easy mistake to make as they were so similar in appearance. She asked him throughout the flight what drinks Thomas wanted, whether he needed anything for his boy, and he seemed tickled by that. Five hours into the flight Thomas fell asleep and several times I caught our fellow passenger looking wistfully at the little boy all snuggled up in his seat. Thomas is very cute, especially when he sleeps. I was happy we had a nice fellow to sit beside. This was working well.

The plane was delayed in leaving for whatever reason, and the interior smalled strongly of jet fuel. The stewardesses seemed unconcerned so I followed their lead, though Bethy and I both had headaches. When we finally took off the pilot wasn't messing around; it was the most straight up ascent I'd ever experienced. Kind of fun.

For some reason there were no movies available through the in-flight entertainment with a rating of less than PG. On a 9 1/2 hour flight that makes for difficulty entertaining small children! TV works wonders on our kids -like a tractor beam, but like I said, there was little that was suitable. I read lots of stories to Thomas and we played games and drew and sang songs and did everything else I could think of. As it was, I had a persistant headache and deeply regretted not having had anything to eat besides coffee, now fighting nausea. We were all happy to get a hot meal at 3 pm, even though they ran out of choices for us. No biggie...airline food is more of a survival thing than a culinary experience anyway.

The woman behind Bethy refused to let her put her seat back, childishly pushing on it whenever Bethy tried to recline and saying what seemed to be rather nasty things in Hebrew. I decided not to make an issue out of her ridiculous behavior and told Bethy that she could have my seat if it came down to that. We flew coach this time; Mike's company gives us either 4 first class tickets to anywhere in the world twice a year or 80% of their value in cash. That's a chunk of change and goes into our travel budget for trips and hotel rooms and such. In other words, I was getting paid very well to fly coach.

Somewhere over Iceland Thomas ran out of patience and cried himself to sleep, and I encouraged Bethy to take a nap too. No such luck, so I had to stay awake too. The breakfast biscuit was so soggy it made me more nauseated and I ended up not touching it. Bethy made friends with the little boy in the seat in front of us who blissfully told us his phone number (turns out he was from Seattle too) and the two of them ended up exchanging gifts; she gave him a special pen and he gave her a shiny purple slap bracelet.

Amsterdam: Arriving at Schiphol Airport, we said goodbye to our friendly fellow passenger and Bethy's little friend and went into the airport. My plan was to store the carry-ons, head out on the train into the city for a few hours, then come back to the airport and weather the time as well as we could until it was time to board. As we'd arrived an hour and some late, we only had 5 hours and the long lines through security both out of and back into the airport decided me that we'd stay. I really didn't want to miss Amsterdam again, but even less did I want to stress out about missing the plane.

It was 8:30 am there, equivalent of 11:30 pm in Seattle. Our bodies had no idea what time it was, only that we were hungry. We waited in another huge line at the McDonalds there.Maybe it's just me, but I hate to wait in a line for McDonalds food. We went somewhere else after 20 minutes of waiting and got an omlette. Back to McD's and after another 20 minutes of waiting for an ice cream I threw up my hands and took the kids to Häagen-Dazs. Better choice, and we ate our ice creams and watched the planes maneuvering out on the tarmac.

It would have been a perfect day to wander along the canals, get a cup of coffee, enjoy the amazing clear light, but instead I had to content myself with taking the kids to the play area in the airport. They had been complaining about how their legs hurt, how they needed to be carried (both of them! Didn't happen.) but when they got into the Kids' Forest ("Op Schiphol kunnen kinderen hun energie kwijt in Kids Forest" says the brochure) they played wildly with all the other little children who were also between flights and wiggy. I think we had come the furthest of all the parents I talked to, and I was impressed by how well my kids were holding up, especially watching some of the other meltdowns going on.

Thomas nicely timed his poopy diaper for while we were there, much appreciated, though I'd brought special scented bags should we have needed to dispose of it on the plane. They wore themselves out well, and I got a breather. Thomas got to get off his "tail" (read: leash) and they only cracked heads with other kids two or three times. Bethy gouged next to her eye pretty well, which swelled beautifully, but other than that...

In Amsterdam they have you go through a pre-flight security screen about 90 minutes before the flight and all the passengers are herded into a holding area. Then you board the plane after everyone has been through security. I watched, amused, as one caucasian passenger read his probably pornographic magazine (judging by the seriously smutty cover photographs which would never, ever make it past customs in the UAE), flanked on either side by women in Abayas, their eyebrows raised nearly to their hairlines and eyes determinedly averted away from the publication. A study in contrasts.

I had held back on letting the kids have the final trick up my sleeve: the portable Nintendo Gameboys. I handed them over while we waited to board. On the plane without problems, we all conked out instantly in our row of seats for three. Thank you, Boeing 777!

Four hours later, governed by internal clocks that had no idea what time it really was, we all woke up over Baghdad. The kids were getting excited about seeing Mike and getting home. Poor Bethy said "I can't wait to see Daddy!" and two seconds later was sobbing "I miss Grandma!" They were so tired out.

Dubai: Our KLM flight soared over the welcome lights of Dubai nearly 24 hours after we'd left Seattle, and we landed. The kids ran through the airport, down the long stretches and over the moving sidewalks, through immigration and to the luggage carousels. I was unreasonably happy to see Arab men in their white dishdashes and the friendly faces of Pakistani, Indian, and Nepalese workers. On the luggage carousel two of our suitcases and Thomas' carseat were there going around, but the last suitcase hadn't made it through. We went through the rigamarole of reporting our lost baggage (black, soft sided, looks like all the others on the conveyer belt, er, I'm not exactly sure what was in that one because I repacked...what brand, er...)

Customs didn't even try to look at any of our suitcases. I'd walked through the "nothing to declare" doors, displaying the lost luggage paperwork as a deterrant just in case someone was thinking of randomly choosing us to go though inspection. My mobile phone wouldn't work in the airport but Mike was there waiting for us anyway, a welcome, welcome sight. I thought we were doing really well but he informed me later that we looked like zombies. Thomas took off running to hug Mike, forgetting he was tied to the luggage cart and got pulled back flat onto his back. This didn't deter him in the least and I freed him to go jump on Mike as Bethy was doing. No more leash. Mike and I had to contend ourselves with a more restrained reunion, (Me: Hi. Mike: Hi.) as public displays of affection offend many people in the Middle East. When in Rome...

Outside, past the swamp coolers, the dusty, sultry air felt good, and smelled wonderful as we loaded the suitcases into waiting Bird Car. I took a deep deep breath and felt entirely mellow. A Mercedes sped by in the parking lot, raising a breeze, and on the freeway we nearly got creamed by another speeding car coming up far, far too fast. Yup, back in Dubai. Through the construction, beneath a bright moon, among the palm trees. Finally, early, early in the morning, we walked through the front door of Gecko House. I'd delivered two whole kids, as promised, and even most of the luggage.

I am in no hurry to repeat the experience any time soon, but I've had worse trips to Costco with our kids than that.

Safe and sound

Back in Gecko House Mike had dealt with a major ant invasion and there were sad little ant corpses scattered, ugh. There was black mildew growing happily around the A/C vent in the kitchen ceiling, which I climbed up and scrubbed off as best as I could the next morning. Something smelled a little off coming out of all the vents, which got worse in the next few days until most of the house smelled like an uncleaned fish tank. It turned out to be blocked pipes in the unused maid's room. The A/C in the kids' rooms had conked out and it was a zillion degrees in there. Thomas threw up a lot the first day home, then was starving, then threw up some more, and had a really hard time getting back to a normal-esque sleeping schedule.

With all that, I was so, so happy to be home.

And our AWOL suitcase showed up by courier the very next morning. Now that's a happy ending!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Nobody said it was's such a shame for us to part

Bethy, Sequim Lavender Festival, Purple Haze Farm.

Our time here in Seattle is quickly winding down, and I feel like, well, like I've been on a 5 week vacation. I had an amazing time seeing you all, the people and places I've missed, and now I'm ready to go home with the kids to Mike.

Thomas gathers up his courage to ride a camel with Cousin Alex the second time he went to the Defiance Point Zoo.

While here we've gone to 3 zoos (some more than once!), a baseball game, lit fireworks, rode a Thomas the Tank Engine train and 3 ferry boats, went to 2 lavender festivals, ate innumerable hot dogs, did lots of touristy things, stayed up too late, slept in too long, and had an overwhelmingly lovely time with all of you.

Mostly I want to say thank you.

Thank you for making time for us in your lives.

Thank you for being forgiving of our unforgiving schedule.

Thank you for asking so many great questions, and being so interested in what it's like for us to be in a faraway place.

Thank you for the hospitality, the blog comments, the neighborhood barbeque.

Thank you for loving Bethy and Thomas even when they were worn out from being dragged around.

Thank you for watching those kids so I could get largely boring and time-consuming but very necessary errands done.

Thank you for meeting me for a meal, a beer, a cupcake, a chat.

Thank you for listening to my long stories that probably had no real point and nodding at all the right places.

Thank you for the hug, the grin, the shared joke, the moment.

Most of all, thank you for the welcome home.

Espresso, overlooking the Puget Sound as the wind was blowing my hair into an ungodly mess and the sun reflected warmly off the water in a moment of complete and utter bliss.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Goin' off the rails on a crazy train...

Maybe it's just me, but some days you shouldn't get out of bed. Not for any true reason that you couldn't have known ahead of time, like to avoid being in a pileup on the freeway or catching Swine Flu, but because nothing really goes "right" and there are no do-overs.

First thing I've learned about coming home is that it is as wonderful and stressful as Christmas shopping at the mall. Your time is limited, you want to make everybody happy, and darn it, there are some things on the shelf that, guiltily, you'd like to buy for yourself.

So, as time is limited and there are so many wonderful people and places to spend time with. when I waste that time it makes me crazy.

Mike got on the plane last Monday to go home, leaving us behind on our extended vacation (more guilt here) while he went back to work in the dust and jaw dropping humidity and heat index. He'd left me a honey-do list that I was happy to undertake, thinking, how hard can this stuff be? Things like going to the bank, moving boxes into storage, having copies of keys made.

The next day, so many things went wrong it would be entirely accurate to say I was a walking train wreck. Nothing big, but good gravy. Worse, it was all stuff that if a person complains about it they sound like a total whiner.

Fortunately, I'm fearless that way. (You get now that none of this stuff is of the least bit of consequence, universally, right? Basically I figured maybe somebody out there could get a laugh out of it since it was otherwise an irreplaceable waste of life in general.) I had a day where Colleen would take care of Bethy and Thomas so I could to take care of most, if not all, of the honey-do list.

So, let's see, traffic and more traffic, including being rerouted around a fatality accident. Yes, I know, it is just wrong to even feel inconvenienced that you had to go 30 minutes out of your way because someone died. I'm sorry, so sorry... (more guilt!)

A pleasant but unscheduled family luncheon made haywire of the schedule I had so carefully planned. I managed to leave my borrowed cell phone under the table after lunch and had to do some more time wasting to go retrieve it. After, of course, I'd already gotten to the point of total out-of-the-way-ness to come back.

Let me say it now: in the Pacific NW the driving is immeasurably more conservative than in the UAE (so much so that suddenly I'm one of the more aggressive drivers---how did THAT happen?!) and people are pretty darned nice, but 4-05 traffic stinks.

I wore my new shirt bearing the legend "I'm not dead yet", which the more erudite of you out there will recognise as being from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It didn't so much as get a nod or grin from my family at lunch (they protested that they took it for granted and felt it didn't warrant a comment) but when I went to Walmart (in itself a hideous time waster -I found most of what I was looking for, but damn I had to earn it!) a woman saw me and sang out "Bring out yer dead!" Startled the heck out of me. Belatedly I realised she was commenting on the shirt.

Among other things, I picked up smoke detectors and a screwdriver and drove to our house in Lynnwood to put them up in preparation for a renter. Sad, empty Huckleberry house reproached me with it's very emptiness. I had neglected to realise that there was nothing to climb up on to screw the smoke detectors in up on the walls, so they ended up maybe 6' from the floor. That's as high as I could reach and I desperately hoped it didn't break some sort of renter's fire code.

I cleaned and vacuumed and dumped the vacuum into the car to take to storage along with a last load of boxes. Now, we somehow lost the code for the entrance gate to our storage unit. I called early in the day to ask the managers what to do about that and they said to stop by, show ID, and they'd give it to me. I knew the place was open until 9, but at 7:15 pm when I arrived the office hours were until 6. Oops. Well, fine then, I drove in, following behind someone else after they punched in their code. Easy, right?

Approaching our unit with the loaded dolly, the lights on our row were out. Well, I thought, that's not very customer friendly...must be a switch somewhere. I looked around and when I got back to our row the lights were on. OK, must be motion activated lights and for some reason I didn't set them off the first time around? I had my huge bunch of keys, but my heart sank as I tried each one to no avail. The storage key wasn't on the keychain. Dang and double dang.

Not much point in hanging around, so I carted the boxes and vacuum cleaner back down to the car and dumped it all back into the trunk. There was planty of activity around the units, and I asked the first friendly person if they would use their code to let me out. I'd tried a few variations on the code as I pseudo-remembered it, but this seemed like the best way.

"Yeah, we'll let you out, but how did you get in?" asked the first person I queried. I sheepishly confessed to having followed someone else.

"Well, you know the code is different for everybody, right?" I actually didn't know that, nor did I particularly care, not seeing the relevance of such a thing.

"You see, if you haven't put in your code and then try to open your storage unit it sets the alarm off."

Oh, eek-o-rama!

Guess it was a good thing I didn't have the key after all.

I slunk away, and went to go get a Jamba Juice for dinner, hoping they were still open even though it was after 8 pm. In the parking lot someone barked at me "I'm getting better!" (Oh, yeah, the shirt, uh huh OK) and then the cashier at Jamba Juice went OFF reciting as many lines as he could from the movie...and I'm pretty sure he had the whole thing memorised. I was standing there, just wanting a juice for cripes sake, fixed smile gettting more plastic and painful.

I wondered how soon I could politely edge away, out of range of the Pythonisms spewing from the Jamba guy. He was really into it, including sound effects (simulated coconuts), singing, and screams. At one point he bonked his head on the counter as one of the self-flagellating monks. At a loss, I shook his hand after I got my juice, and he flung "What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?" after my rapidly retreating personage. "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"

Eek again. I obviously don't have what it takes to wear this shirt.

I went to get keys made at Lowes. Despite repeated attempts by the customer service folks to page someone, no one arrived. Fine, drove to U Village figuring they have a key kiosk there that might still be open...which it wasn't...but that at least I could finally get one of the things checked off on my other list, the must do in Seattle list: to eat a Cardamom Chai cupcake from Trophy. ( They were out of them and I had to console myself with a vanilla one. Oh, the horror.

Well, perhaps I couldn't screw up depositing a check at the bank ATM. I would do that and go home and go to bed and the heck with it.

Now....which bank bought out Washington Mutual again...?

Sugared up with the juice and now a cupcake on an empty stomach, I drove to Chase Bank, and at the ATM there were no envelopes. In a moment of pique, I signed the check and let the machine suck it up in a deposit without an envelope. Mike's Mom was horrified when she heard I did this and hadn't put the account number on it. I trust the nice folks at the bank will figure it out.

You hate to have a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-day for no good reason.

Now I've shared the idiocy and hope you guys get a good laugh at me so the day won't have been a total waste.

And I put some pretty photographs from the UAE for those folks who only look at the pictures and read the comments. You know who you are.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Isn't it ironic?

Yeah, yeah, another photo of Bethy on a camel...but wait a minute! They're in Seattle!

Ah, camels and evergreens. Point Defiance Zoo has camel rides for the serious bargain price of $5 apiece. Totally a deal. Bethy rode the best cared-for, healthiest camel I have ever seen. I asked if her camel was Arabian or Australian.

From Oklahoma, they said.

Well, alrighty then.

In the morning Thomas had said that he neither wanted to see tigers nor elephants. He wanted to see a plane. As in, get on the plane and go back to Dubai.

Too bad, kid, we're going to the zoo. It's a tough life.

Thomas enjoyed the zoo. His favorite is the tiger (he balked at riding the camel from Oklahoma for some reason) and we came around a corner to see a large male specimen stalking and prowling back and forth on his enormous paws. Thomas yelled "tiger!!" and pelted towards the giant cat. About six feet from the glass panic suddenly crossed his face, he put on the brakes, and backpedaled frantically, looking exactly like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Apparently from somewhere in his deep consciousness he'd realised, traditionally speaking, he's the perfect size for a tiger snack.

They fed budgie birds, saw otters and tapirs, the kids guessing that those large black and white tapirs were pandas (per Bethy) or cows (Thomas), but the winner for the day was the aquarium's touch tank. Bethy could not believe how cold water from Puget Sound is. The Gulf along Dubai is comparable to a very warm bath,

or perhaps the amazing hot chocolate we had afterwards at our favorite restaurant in Kent: Wild Wheat. Obscenely good. They make their own chocolate syrup...mmmm...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stars and Stripes forever...

Bethy said today, "Mom, I feel sorry for the Americans who aren't home for the 4th of July. The fireworks are so pretty!"
She is my all-American girl.

Though she turned her nose up at SeaTac, "Why is this airport so old, Mom?" she says, whenever anyone asks, that she doesn't like Dubai because it is too hot there. She was distressed to learn we're heading back there while it's still summer, having been under the mistaken impression that we were going to do the women-and-kids thing that's quite popular: to go on vacation to friendlier climes until just before school starts.

Thomas, on the other hand, was awed by the trees upon trees going by as we drive along the roads here, but by the end of our first week he was already asking to "go home to-a Gecko House!" He begs every day to go get on the plane.

When I asked Thomas to say "hi" to our checker at Target he cheerfully responded "Salaam aleekum!" Yet at another store when I told him to say thank you in Arabic he said "Thank you in Arabic!"

We had Yakisoba chicken for dinner and Thomas insisted, innocently and to our great amusement, upon calling it "Yukky Chicken Soba."

Oh, that kid.

I couldn't have been more pleased to be there when my sister, Julia, ran her first race. Every fourth of July, in the small country town of Carnation, Washington, they hold the Race for the Pies 5K. As in the name, the first three in each age category win a pie from nearby Remlingers Farm. I bought my sister and I each a pie in good celebratory fashion, in liu of placing. I didn't mind; it was fantastic to run a 5 kilometer race. In Dubai the shortest one is 10K. Even the Predictor weekly-semi-sort-of-race I do is 6.8K. I guess they figure if you're nuts enough to run in the Middle East you have to earn your pain. It seemed like this race was over before it began: in 24:12 I was done. That was nice.

Can you see the Ace hardware/liquor store behind me? And the horse?

There were cowboy hats and BBQ and the stars and stripes flown as flags and rosettes everywhere. My sis and I were enamoured by this tractor from the 50s and the darling older man in his bib overalls to whom it belonged. He charmed us silly, calling us his "calendar girls" and snapped our photos for us.

That's us. Ms July.

It's twice as hot in Dubai as it is here right now, a sprinkling of rain and under 60 degrees. Boy, is that nice. Not bad being Ms July in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by trees and family...