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Carnival in Aalst, Belgium

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No....that is not me!  It is D's new Carnival friend.  We ventured to Aalst, 19 miles northwest of Brussels, to celebrate Carnival known as the day of the 'Voil Jeannetten' (literally "the Dirty Jennies"), i.e. men dressed as women.   Some of them dressed quite boldly....

  

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others tried to be pretty.....

  

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and some were just plain raunchy!

  

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It is held at a time of year to say goodbye to the cold days of winter and welcome the onset of spring, but this year - winter was here to stay.  It was freezing cold and it snowed the entire parade.

  

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But that did not seem to slow down the partying!  This friendly group shared a glass of their special Belgian Liqueur with us.  Aalst is in the Dutch part of the country.


 

 

 

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This celebration dates back to the 1400's.  But the parades, events, and parties as they are know today have been going on for 82 years. 

  

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It is said that when it first started, their was no money for costumes, so the men wore their wives old outfits, carried a handbag and an umbrella and pushed a baby buggy.  All of which you still see today.  The baby buggies are now used to store their drinks.

  

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There were several "adjustments" made during the parade -

  

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see guys - pantyhose aren't so easy to wear!

 

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The celebrations last for three days ending on Shrove Tuesday which is the day before Ash Wednesday - 40 days before Easter. 

 

 

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The celebration is a time to "gorge".  The last time you can drink enormous amounts of alcohol, eat tons of candy and meat and do things you should not be doing during lent.

 

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And the people of the parade were certainly doing all of the above!

 

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There are 2500 participants

 

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and over 70 floats that wind their way through the street taking seven hours to do so.  It was so cold, we only made it through 4 hours.

 

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Every year they create new costumes and floats.  They store them in big warehouses where locals work on them all year long.

 

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As we understand it, the theme is an interpretation of the last twelve months’ world and local events, reflected in both their costumes and giant floats.

 

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There are over-sized characters from local politics,

 

 

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and the world. 

 

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Many of which we did not understand.

 

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The emphasis of the day is definitely on slapstick comedy. 

 

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And men dressing as women. 

 

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Sometimes it was hard to tell if it really was a man or just an ugly woman......

 

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or just a really ugly man   :  )

 

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The Gille is a long standing character whose costume is decorated with Belgium symbols; the lions, crowns and stars and in the Belgium colors red, yellow and black.  He throws oranges into the crowd.

 

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They also throw onions on Monday.  The people of Aalst are nicknamed ajuinen by their fellow Belgians because of the large number of onion farms that once covered the region. 

 

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The festivities traditionally end with the "Burning of the Doll", happening on Tuesday evening.  This ritual is meant to represent the burning of the spirit of winter.

Believe it or not, this Parade is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

 


2010 - Dubai United Abab Emirates (UAE) - Our first trip of the year

About Dubai

 Dubai is one of the seven Emirates of the United Abab Emirates (UAE).  It is located south of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East. 


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This was my first adventure to the middle east, last year D was in Saudi Arabi.  Dubai's main revenue is from tourism, property, and financial services.  The currency they use is call dirhams.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is their current ruler. 


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Oops wrong photo, that one is Sheikh Donhammed Bin Ward.  Here is the real Sheikh.  His photo is on posters all over the city.


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Dubai is home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, with 160 floors and a height of 2,717 feet.  It was started in 2004 and had it's grand opening January 2010.  We missed the event by a week.  There is an observation deck on the 124th floor, but tickets were sold out.  NOT that I would have gone up!  To see it in person was ah inspiring, a true architecture wonder.


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Our travel buddies Dave and Allison also showed up, but Dave was there for completely different reason - it just happened to be at the same time.  What fun.... another adventure with D2 and A!!!


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Due to snow delays in Germany and Brussels, it took us 15 hours to get there (actual flight time was about 7 hours).  By the time we checked into our hotel on Sunday it was 3 am Dubai time and D had to be to work at 8:30 am!  Our flight home took off at 3 am and it took us 16 hours to get home.

 

Our Hotel


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We stayed at a contemporary new hotel attached to the Dubai Mall.  Cool rooms and a super friendly staff.  I was ready to move in after the first day.   I did not even have to go outside to get to the mall.   Breakfast was included in the room price, but one morning they made a mistake and handed us a bill, $60 per person for the buffet!  Now this buffet was like nothing I have ever seen, but who would pay $60 for breakfast?

The people


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Dubai is a huge melting pot of people.  They say only 17% are truly from Dubai.  Everyone was extremely friendly and spoke English.  In fact, EVERYTHING was in English.  I tried to buy a greeting card in Arabic and could not find one.  This young kid wanted me to take his photo he was all smiles then acted serious when I took the photo.  Cute!

Shopping

Dubai is the Shopping capital of the Middle East and many will say one of the best shopping cities in the world.  The store signs were in English and Arabic.  Everyone's favorite - Starbucks.


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There are over 70 malls - many of which have themes and special attractions such as indoor ski slopes, Aquariums, underwater zoos and ice rinks (photo below). 


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Our Hotel was attached to the Dubai Mall which is THE BIGGEST MALL in the WORLD! 


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Yep, the world!  1200 stores.  And what timing - Thursday kicked off the Dubai shopping festival; the biggest sale day of the year, called the "part sale."  People come from all over the world (they say 3 million) to shop the malls for bargains. 


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We participated, well one of us REALLY participated.  Let's start with me - one pair of sandals.  And D.......three pairs pants and two dress shirts!

Religion and Dress


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Islam is the official religion of the UAE and 96% who live there are Muslims.  Their religion requires the greeting to God 5 times a day.  You will see men praying on the streets, basically anywhere.  Friday noon, prayer must be performed at the mosque. 


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Both alcohol and pork are forbidden by Muslims.  Dubai is the most liberal of the Middle Eastern countries so it does allow other religions to practice openly.  The men wear the traditional white robe called a thobe and may I say they do look very dashing in them.  The headscarf they wear is called a guthra and is usually white or red checked (you can see both in the photo below).



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I asked our Saudi friends what the difference was between all white or red and white and they said the white is more formal.  There is not a wrinkle to be seen in these robes.  I read that they change them many times a day.

 

 The majority of the women wear the traditional black robe called an abaya, it is the traditional form of a hijab (Islamic dress).  With this, the head is always covered.  The women of Dubai are very beautiful and wear exquisite makeup. 


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And even though the abaya is black, they are very fashionable and each so different from the next.  They have very detailed styling with delicate hand embrodery, beads, and sparkles on the sleeves and on the scarves.


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A large percentage also wore a niqab (face veil) which covers all of the face except the eyes.  And stories say...they wear extremly sexy lingerie under them!


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They are not required to wear the abaya but do so out of respect for their religion.  Young girls begin wearing abayas at puberty, but many start earlier due to family or peer pressure.  You really should not photograph the women, but I snapped a few shots from a distance.


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Our trip - Day 1

Okay, enough history - let's move into the details of our trip.  As we walked off the plane, my first sight was a Cold Stone Creamery, which I thought was odd, but come to find out you can eat at absolutely any American restaurant that you want, even Taco Bell!  Below is the view from our bedroom window.


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Our first day, Donald worked and I checked out the mega mall.  We met early evening and went to a happy hour at the foot of the Burj Khalifa at a stunning hotel. 

 

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I met several new friends.  Donald was a bit nervous wondering what might come out of my mouth with the conservative Saudi guests.  But I was pretty well behaved  :  0   There was a nice variety of appetizers and drinks, enough to fill us up for dinner.  It was a delightful evening.


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Day 2

Donald went off to work and I met up with Fatima.  Her husband works with D and they are currently living in Germany. 


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We had a delicious lunch of fresh mixed salads and a perfect view of the Burj Khalifa.  We did a little shopping and then relaxed at the pool.  We had to save our energy for our safari dinner in the dessert.

 


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The safari dinner was a blast.  It started out with 4-wheel drive vehicles picking us up at the hotel.  We drove 30 minutes or so and then the driver went off-road into the sand.  We drove for 10 minutes through the sand - bouncing all over the place.  Thank goodness I had secured the front seat, as I am sure I would not have made the ride in the back.

When we pulled up to the event, there were camels for us to ride.  I will never pass up a camel ride!


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Just a note, the camels in Cairo were friendlier! 


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There were many surprises during the evening including a woman doing mehndi (painting henna designs on people).  It is said to bring love and good fortune and protect against evil.  It is usually done at weddings, rites of passage and special events.  This was a special event for me!


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I was the first to have my hand done.  Her speed was impressive and the designs were charming.


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Carey had one painting on her ankle. 


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I liked it so much I went back for one too!  She said it would last three weeks, but my hand only lasted a week.  My ankle still looks good.

 


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Even the men got in on the fun and had scorpions painted on their arms.  NO!  not D!!!


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Dinner was a buffet with traditional Dubai food; shish-kabobs, hummus, egg plant stew, okra and for dessert rice pudding.  As always, our "event eater" was the first through the line.


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After dinner - out came the belly dancer.  She was very good and had fun pulling the men up to dance with her.  D hid behind another guy so he was not invited up.  Chicken!  And for all you girls, you do need a belly to do this correctly  :  )


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Did I mention there were sheeshas? 


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"I did not inhale!" But the two women from Jordon really got into it. 


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Day 3

D went to work (poor baby - he did work a lot) and I met up with my travel girl Allison.  To make a very long story short......it took us 90 minutes to find each other.  The taxi driver dropped her off at the wrong hotel!  Anyway, as we both were giving up and going back to our respective hotels, we passed each other in the mall.


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I am glad we did find each other as we had a delightful day.  We visited the Madinat Jumeirah area which looks like a movie set.


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We we had a perfect view of the Burj Al Arab, the famous luxury hotel that is often used when advertising Dubai and on T-shirts. 

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That evening we hooked up with D and Carey and went to the Spice Souk (Arabic word for market).  D2 had to fly to Doha Qatar, so he was not with us.  D told everyone we were his three wives.  I think they half-way believed him! 


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They had spices from India, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.


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The souks are very different from the glossy slick hotels and malls, they are very much old world. 


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The souks are filled with color and intoxicating smells.  The blue is indigo for dying clothing.


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We purchased fresh ground coriander, hot curry, cardamom - ground and extract, raisins, dried cranberries and a big bag of cinnamon sticks.  This vibrant orange red is the very pricey saffron.

 

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One of the Souk vendors jumped right into the middle of our photo - charming!


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 Wanting to impress C and A with our fine dining knowledge, D selected the fanciest restaurnt in the souk, a very local joint.


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Plastic chairs and all - nothing but the best for them!  The food was actually very good and the fresh fruit juices were excellent.  All for grand total of $17!


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Day 4

D worked in the morning and then spent the afternoon with me and A.  We ventured out to the textile Souk.


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where we enjoyed some spice tea.  


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 A and I were looking at the jeweled shoes,


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when D brought us a yummy samosa (potato stuffed pastry).  We were so impressed we wanted to know where he got it an if we should eat lunch there. 


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He said sure (laughing)...but warned us that is was small and definitely a LOCAL dive filled with all male Pakistani workers.


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 Wow, dive does not appropriately cover this place.  But the owner was very welcoming so we went in.  There were a total of three tables.  We were pretty sure no other Americans have ever eaten there. 

We sat down and he said chicken and rice - we all nodded yes.  All eyes were on us.  We noticed all were eating with their hand.  We were served a spoon with our rice plate and we ate our food with this.  He also brought us lavash (a bread like item), water and soda.


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All was good and as we asked for the bill - they handed us each two pieces of crunchy white paper.  Our eyes got big and we just looked at each other  and giggled - what were they for?  Everyone was looking at us - we wiped our hands and I turned to all of them and said is this right?   They all just stood there.  We think we were suppose to wash our hands in the sink in the back and wipe them with the paper or this was the "paper trick" they test out on all americans  :  0

 

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The total bill - $10!!  You can't buy 3 waters in Brussels for $10.  As we left the restaurant I turned and said thank you it was good and they all repeated - it was good, it was good.  We are pretty sure none of them spoke English.  This was definitely the most "hole-in -the-wall" restaurant we have ever eaten in and truly an experience.

I know the question all of you are thinking and the answer is NO - none of us got sick  :  ), but I am guessing my mom might after simply looking at the photo!  


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One thing I found interesting was that there were no beggars to be seen anywhere in Dubai.  This in not the case in most European cities.  But they did have very aggressive souk vendors who would drape you with pashminas as you walked but to try and get you to buy.
 

We had a fun day exploring the old town.  That night D2 arrived back in Dubai and we enjoyed a Lebanese dinner.

Our last day


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 Finally - both boys had the day off and we could all play.  We wanted to show D2 the restaurant we ate lunch at so we headed back to the textile souk, but unfortunately all the souks are closed on friday, the holy day.  The restaurant was open with a very long line.  We got four samosas to go.


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We then took the Abra (traditional arabic boat made of wood) over the Dubai Creek - which is actually misleading as it is a chanel, not a creek, that goes out to the gulf.  It was a vibrant visual experience.

We were on an abra just like you see here.  There were 50 or so running constantly back and forth. 


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Sharing the waters were the much bigger dhows (old fashioned colorful wooden cargo boast) which load and unload all sorts of cargo on the dock.  They run merchandise out to large cargo ships in the gulf. 

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The dhows looked like pirate ships that were ready to sink.


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and there were very interesting characters manning them.

 

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When searching for a place to eat lunch we stumbled upon this menu:


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and this guy was tied to the side of the building:
 


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We did not eat there!  Instead we selected another traditional Dubai restaurant we we enjoyed a tasty meal and again, great juices.   We were all tired from our big lunch so we headed back to D2 and A's pool to rest up for dinner.

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We lucked out and experienced a stunning sun set looking out towards the Burj Khalifa . 


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All other nights had been too hazy.  What a great ending to a fun packed educational adventure.

Oh wait...I almost forgot the funniest story of the trip;  ice cream at the Stone Cold Creamery.  We were so full from our lunch we all voted to have ice cream for dinner (now you see why we travel so well with D & A).  We walk into the store and the guys behind the counter were singing and having a great time.


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They are even tossing scoops acoss the entire store.  One of the workers runs out into the mall to catch the scoop.  Lets just say for Dave's scoop, it was their fourth try - yes, several scoops on the floor. 


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It was a great time and the entire store was cheering them on.  He did catch the scoop in the photo below.  We finished our ice cream and I held up my cup (we were sitting in the store) the scooper guy nodded his head and I stood up. 


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D and A were looking at me like I was crazy.  A said there is no way he will throw that to you D is telling me to give him the cup as I will never catch that.  BOOM - out into the crowd  over Dave's head - straight into my cup!  I was jumping up and down and the entire store was clapping and cheering. 

Now that was a grand ending to a grand trip!!!

There are more photos in the album in the upper right hand corner at the top.