I’ve been keeping a bit of a secret from y’all recently. After much contemplation, confusion and deliberation, I finally followed my heart and am now trained as a qualified INDEPENDENT TRAVEL AGENT 🗺✈
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In August 2014 I saw a photo of a cave hotel posted by a traveller called ‘fameisficklefood’ and all I remember thinking is how I had never seen anything quite like it! At that point I had barely travelled and therefore my knowledge and understanding of ‘what’s out there’ was limited. Since the day I saw that photo, I researched the hell out of Cappadocia. I spent ages reading about it, looking at hotels in the area and dreaming of visiting one day. At the time I wasn’t really convinced it would happen but I made a list of places I would like to see and experience.
Our hotel Museum Hotel was an experience on it’s own. It is located in the Uchisar region and feature a terrace with panoramic valley views with a heated outdoor pool.
It is by far one of the most amazing places I have ever had the pleasure to stay (a close second after our hotel in Thailand)!
Looking back at all the photos from the hotel makes me feel extremely grateful that we were in a position to experience something like it. The hotel was absolutely impeccable. From their service, cleanliness, communication, everything was perfect!
Hot Air Balloon Ride
Of course the first thing you think of when you hear the word Cappadocia is ‘hot air balloons’. We started the day off by taking a ride on the hot air balloon. We woke up at crazy o’ clock (around 4am to be precise) as we were going to be picked up around 4.30am. The hot air balloon company collected us from our hotel and took us to a tiny little restaurant for breakfast… which wasn’t anything special.
After rallying at the restaurant, we continued our journey and headed towards the location where we were set to take off from. The experience was amazing, but there weren’t as many hot air balloons around. I think the unstable political situation in Turkey (2016 coup incident in Istanbul and Ankara) definitely had a massive impact on Turkey’s tourism around that time. The locals all commented on how it was unusual for their to be hardly any tourists around.
Roaming around Uchisar
After coming back from the ride, we had the most amazing breakfast ever! As we were the only guests for breakfast that day (absolutely no reflection on the hotel), we took up the option to being served breakfast out on the balcony rather than the dining area. The breakfast spread was such that we had to be served food on two tables in order to accommodate all the crockery!
Ahmed and I have the curse of restiveness when it comes to being on holidays and off we went to explore the local ‘things to do’.
Quad bike tour
Jumping on the quad bikes was never in our plans and actually we were thinking of staying in the hotel and making the most of it. But since neither of us know how to ‘relax’, we both agreed to experience the quad bikes! I am sooo glad we did. I can honestly say that exploring Cappadocia on the quad bikes was a bit of a highlight for me. I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did. The adrenaline rush was so real!
I woke up (and forced Ahmed to wake up) mega early to witness one of the most incredible sunrises covered by the hot air balloons. It felt magical being able to just sit there and take in the beautiful scenery. I think it would be fair to say that whoever visits Cappadocia wakes up early at least one morning to witness this?
Devrent Valley (Imagination Valley)
We decided to hire the car and visit some local places throughout the day. Our first stop was Devrent Valley. For some reason we didn’t really stop here for too long as I think we may have got lost for a little while and ended up driving to our next destination. We it was worth a break and some photo opportunities!
Zelve Open Air Museum
The next stop was probably my favourite part of the day and one that I will definitely not forget any time soon. This cave town was home to one of the largest cave-dwelling communities in the region. Christians and Muslims lived here harmoniously until the 1920’s when the Greek-Orthodox Christians were driven out of Turkey. Muslims continued to live in their Zelve cave homes until 1952 when they were deemed too dangerous to inhabit for structural reasons.
What we liked most about the Zelve Open Air Museum is how freely we were able to explore the different abandoned homes and churches. There were also very few people visiting Zelve at the time, so we were able to roam freely and really imagine what it might have been like to live in this extraordinary homes only a short 65 years ago.
Pasabag Valley (Monks Valley)
The only memory I have of this place is seeing that lady in the photo on the right. She gave me the most gorgeous smile and waved as I was getting excited about being there. I then waved back and asked her if I could take a photo and she gave me a thumbs up. She seemed so excited that I was taking a photo of her, so I did. I even had a lovely selfie with her that she seemed to be impressed by!
Goreme Open Air Museum
This was another open air museum that we went to. If memory serves me right, we didn’t end up getting the tickets to visit the museum, instead we walked around and enjoyed our surroundings!
Kaymakali Underground City
Derinkuyu Underground City
We ended up visiting two underground cities in Cappadocia during our visit. It was the underground cities that took us by surprise. Even though these were a bit out of the way from Cappadocia, it was worth the visit to see how people had carved out dwellings underground. The concept left us awestruck and we ended up taking a silly amount of pictures. The best thing that we did when visiting them was to book a tour guide who talked us through the history and told us stories about them!
Time to say goodbye… to Turkey and to each other.. Until next time!
Honestly? I can’t remember how we ended up being interested in visiting Sri Lanka or how it came on our radar. Just weeks after visiting Saudi Arabia and performing Umrah with Ahmed it was almost time to return to the UK to start the spouse visa application. This of course meant that we were about to embark on our long distance relationship journey. We wanted to plan ahead and not let the whole long distance relationship make us miserable or even worse, damage our relationship. We wanted to preplan and know when we would meet one another in the future. As we vaguely knew that the visa application process would take approximately 9-12 months, we decided to split our holidays accordingly. We decided to take time off work in April (it was our anniversary, July (just after my birthday) and then in October (Ahmed’s birthday). We wanted to use this opportunity to make the most of the little time we would spend together.
Ahmed came home from work one day and just happened to mention Sri Lanka in passing. I had finished work by then so had all the time in the day to kill, so when he went to work the following day I spent the entire day doing my research on Sri Lanka and put together a vague itinerary if we were ever to visit. (By the way I totally do that, when I come across a country I wish to visit, I tend to find out the ‘go to places’ and create itineraries.) During the research, I came to know that Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where Ahmed can apply for a visa easily.
Bearing a Pakistani passport, he can’t go to many countries so this was a massive pull factor for me straight away.
Oh well, I moved back to the UK soon after and with all that was happening around me, the itinerary I had created was forgotten about.
When I started my job in England, my manager told me about her recent trip to Sri Lanka and how she had the most amazing 10 days. She gave me details of the driver that she hired and who she highly recommended. So I passed his details to Ahmed and shared that I was quite interested in exploring Sri Lanka.
In April 2016, as agreed and pre-arranged, I turned up at Doha airport and as soon as I landed, Ahmed shared that we were going to Sri Lanka. Err… what?!
So here’s the itinerary….
We arrived at Colombo on 23rd April 2016 at 0300 hrs and were collected by the amazing Mr. Upali. He was our driver for the whole time that we were in Sri Lanka. At the bottom of the page I have written a paragraph on Upali and how he made this the most amazing holiday ever!
After being welcomed by Upali, we went straight to Negombo to stay at Terrace Green Hotel which was cheap and cheerful, yet extremely clean and an overall good value for money. The plan was to catch a few hours sleep and make the most of DAY 1 so we had to leave mega early. Sleep is for the weak anyway, right?
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
We started our journey around 8-ish and went straight to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. I had seen many photos on Instagram and it looked like an amazing place to visit. On the surface of it all, it sounded fantastic. We were told that we would be contributing towards elephant welfare, which was something that made me even more eager to visit.
HOWEVER….. I quickly became horrified at how these elephants were treated. I passed numerous elephants chained in solitary confinement (which you can see in the photos). The elephants looked unhappy and out of their comfort zone. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone visited a place that promotes animal cruelty for economic purposes.
For these reasons, we decided not to stay in the orphanage for long and headed straight to the famous ‘Dambulla Cave Temple’.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla Cave Temple is also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, however there are two different temples. The Golden Temple is at the base of the mountain in the centre of Dambulla whereas the Cave Temple is much higher up the hill and can be accessed by climbing up the hill from the Golden Temple.
This is a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka and is situated in the central part of the country. Dambulla is the largest and best-preserved cave temple in Sri Lanka. This place was somewhere that I did not think I would enjoy as much as I did. But I absolutely loved every second of it.
As we headed towards the temple, I wasn’t quite prepared for the steps and an uphill walk. Perhaps being jet lagged, over excited and the excursion didn’t help the situation. Although the walk up isn’t really strenuous I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint hearted. I would consider myself ‘relatively fit’ but I massively struggled. Maybe it was the heat…
On the way up we began to see lots of monkeys hanging around, pinching peoples’ food. As we got to the top, we saw Monks offering their prayers and walking around. There is an entry fee to visit the temples and it isn’t cheap. From my memory there is a fee for ‘local/Sri Lankan people and a higher one for foreigners’.
And remember as always: no shoes and hats allowed, knees covered!
Once we finally got to the top, we saw the most beautiful Buddha sculptures under the rock. Each sculpture was unique and almost had it’s own story. I was kind of gutted that we didn’t get a guided tour as to be honest, I have no idea what the different Buddha’s represented. I only know that they all all represented something different as I was eavesdropping!
After a long day of visiting different places, it was time to head to our gorgeous hotel. We stayed in Sigiriya (Heritance Kandalama). The hotel was perfect in so many ways. The hospitality, the service, the food, the location and price were perfect.
Sigiriya – Lion’s rock
So the best thing about having a driver was that we didn’t have to think about how we’d get to all the sites that we wanted to visit. Upali would be ready bang on time and welcomed us into his car with a beaming smile. He would also tell us facts and information about Sri Lanka as we travelled through it.
We had planned to visit Sigiriya on day two. Sigiriya, also know as Lion Rock, is arguably the most important site we saw when we visited Sri Lanka. It is thousands of years old and was the site of the Royal Palace of one Sri Lanka’s ancient Kings. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
To get to the top you have to climb up several steps, over 1,200 steps to be precise. I did not know this before I went. Here’s a few tips for you guys if you do ever go:
Wear trainers or comfy shoes as the hike/walk up can be quite strenuous.
Get there early to beat the crowds and the heat.
Take some (read ‘a lot’) water with you as you will get thirsty. (You can buy water before you start up the steps but it is expensive!)
So the craziest thing happened here, we started to chat to this random couple and it turned out that they lived in Qatar and had been there for a number of years. But their home town was Newcastle… such a small world! This is what I love about travelling, talking to complete strangers yet having so many similarities.
Dambulla to Nuwara Eliya
Our plan was to go from Dambulla to Nuwara Eliya but it was a long journey. Worry not, our amazing taxi driver had it all in control and told us he would take us to different places en route. And boy oh boy he did not disappoint.
Our our way to Nuwara Eliye we went to the following places:
A random temple: Upali took us to this very colourful Hindu temple. Remember, Sri Lanka’s majority population are practicing Buddhists, however, according to Upali, Hinduism is the second largest religion in Sri Lanka. Hence, the gorgeous temples all over, bursting with culture.
The temple was minutes, or even second away from being closed but we were allowed entry. It truly was amazing to see the sheer effort that was put into the intricacy of this temple.
The Kandy War Cemetery: This was another ‘first’ for us. I had never been to a Commonwealth War Cemetery before. Located in Kandy, this place was a little off the beaten track but well worth a trip. According to Wikipedia (I don’t know how true this is), there are 203 buried soldier, consisting of: 107 British, 35 East Africans, 26 Sri Lankans, 23 Indians, 6 Canadians, 3 Italians, 1 Frenchman and 2 unidentified persons, of the 203 dead, 151 were army, 32 were air force, 16 were navy, 2 were unidentified, 1 was merchant navy and 1 was from the national fire service.
Tea plantation: What Sri Lanka is known for it’s tea plantations! Heard if Ceylon tea?After the heat of Dambulla, we were more than ready to head to the cooler, hilly region filled with Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations. The temperatures were cooler and we were going to finally get to see how all this tea we drink is made.
As we were heading to Nuwara Eliya and then on to Ella, we stopped by a random tea plantation factory. Although both Ahmed and I are tea lovers, it is fair to say we were completely clueless about how tea is made. Initially I thought this would be a very boring tour, it turns out that I actually really enjoyed the experience!
We were shown the tea plants up close and the leaves that were picked. All these different types of tea aren’t different plants. It’s the same tea leaves, just processed slightly differently (I thought green tea was from a different plant but nope it isn’t!). The tea plantations grow the tea, process it and package it up for auctions in Colombo where all the different brands like Dilmah and Lipton taste the tea and buy the ones they like best.
Nuwara Eliya to Ella: Train trip of a life time
Although Ahmed was always against the idea of catching the train, I was adamant that I wanted to experience the authenticity of a train journey in Sri Lanka. After all everyone who has visited Sri Lanka speaks so highly about the experience.
I eventually managed to convince Ahmed to come with me (it took some convincing from Upali too)! Yeyy. We decided to send our luggage with Upali and ended up getting the train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella.
The train journey was epic, and I spent most of the train trip sat in the door with my legs dangling out of the moving train.
As we arrived at Ella, we had some quick lunch and decided to climb up Adam’s Little Peak. There is another peak known as Adam’s Peak which, according to the belief is where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of the heavens above. We decided not to climb that due to time constraint and also we didn’t want to do anything too strenuous.
The Little Adam’s Peak, 1141 m high, is fairly easy to climb, with a good path all the way up. The trip took us about 2-3 hours in total (including picture taking). We didn’t see anyone at all during our hike which is extremely unusual as this is a really popular hike with tourists and backpackers. I guess maybe the weather put people off, but I thought the weather made it even more special and easy! Good job we carried out rain coats, right?
After spending the night in Ella, we headed towards Galle where our extravagant hotel was located. On our way to the hotel, we stopped and visited local attractions and beaches. I haven’t written too much about those places because it was a very ‘ad hoc’ journey and we just stopped at places that we thought looked pretty and picturesque from a distance. Upali was very patient and stopped anywhere that I asked him to!
We decided to book a luxury hotel towards the end of the trip as we wanted to unwind and soak in our experiences in Sri Lanka. When we told Upali where we were staying, he seemed ecstatic and we couldn’t understand why he was so pleased. But as we arrived at The Fortress he explained that any drivers that come with the tourists at the Fortress get a room with AC’s. Previously he had been staying in places where they didn’t have this luxury!
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we were mesmerised by their service, decor and location. Located directly opposite a beautiful beach, we could not have asked for more.
Whale & Dolphin watching
This was something I would never have imagined doing! Ahmed had booked for us to go whale and dolphin watching. On arrival we were asked if we were sea sick and if you were, they provided you with some anti sickness medication.
As we headed into the sea, we began seeing some gorgeous Dolphins in their natural habitat/ environment. No cages, no restrictions. Completely free in the wild, just how it should be.
We did briefly manage to see a whale, but were too mesmerised to capture it properly. I will always remember how much of a presence the whale had on its surrounding. So beautiful, so strong, so real.
Quick visit to Galle
What we didn’t realise was that there is a large Muslim population in Galle. Obviously Muslim population means that one thing is going to be available for sure…. HALAL FOOD. Oh YES! We went searching for some halal meat and came across this tiny little burger place. My mouth still waters thinking about those burgers. I don’t know if we were mega hungry or whether the burgers really were that amazing… a bit of both!
Galle was a really gorgeous little town. It gave you a real feel of how life must be like for the locals.
Saying Goodbye to ‘Upali’ our AMAZING Driver
I feel that I needed to dedicate at least a paragraph to our amazing driver, Upali. Part of me feels that he was one of the reasons we enjoyed our stay in Sri Lanka so much. His vast knowledge on the country, his humble and respectful nature made the trip extra special for us. Upali was well spoken, well dressed and well mannered. He immediately made us feel at ease and was willing to go above and beyond to ensure that our journey was smooth and memorable. He took interest in our itinerary, helped us make some changes along the way and was patient when we took much longer than agreed. I can’t imagine his job being easy. Driving for hours on end, dealing with potentially extremely ignorant and annoying foreigners, being so far away from his family for so many days and worst of all sleeping in places that he has no say over.
It’s kind of strange. Spending so much time with someone, essentially a stranger, yet making so many memories with them. I feel that I will always remember him for all the good reasons and perhaps the one reason I would return back to see another side of Sri Lanka.
If you’re thinking of going to Sri Lanka and want his contact details, send me a message and I will share it with you. He is very able and will respond to you immediately.
After leaving Sri Lanka, I was going to return back to the UK and Ahmed was going to Qatar. We both knew we wouldn’t see one another for 3 months so we decided to plan our next escapade……
Okay, so this post is very close to my heart. I am in a place in my life where I feel like I am being pushed and pulled at the same time.
Prior to migrating to Qatar and prior to meeting my husband, I was someone who used to call themselves a ‘Muslim’. I was by no means a practising Muslim as such. I was a Muslim just by name. Around 2013 I did not even know names of our Prophet Mohammed (SAW) family members. And in all fairness, all I knew was there is no deity, but God. I believed in the Almighty with all my heart. After all, He had blessed me in so many ways. But I did not know much else other than the words La illaha ilAllah Muhammad rasoolAllah.
My journey started when I moved to Qatar. The move to Qatar was exciting yet depressing at times. I spent hours offering my prayers. Praying for an answer. Praying for some guidance. During this time, I had applied for numerous jobs and attended many interviews. As I waited to hear back from employers, I started to question my credibility and employability as I felt trapped in the four walls that surrounded me.
Eventually I was offered two jobs; one in a Pakistani school with a very good reputation and another job in an Islamic British school. After thinking long and hard, I decided to accept the job offer at the Islamic school. I believe He is the best planner and that is the reason I ended up in the Islamic school. I can confidently say that my experience at the school changed me. Changed me in ways that I might never know. I had the privilege to be in the company of the most humble and modest Muslims for 6 months. Sisters that will forever remain in my heart. Students whose faces I will never forget. Miss Aisha, the manager whose faith in God inspired me.
Though I do not claim to be the perfect Muslim, nor do I claim to have a great, intense Islamic knowledge, I believe I am now a somewhat better informed of what a Muslim is. However this journey has not been one without any turbulence.
Between April 2015 – December 2015, I spent my time trying to fit in, trying to make sense of how my life had changed and developed. As time went on, one thing was sure. Whilst we were living in Qatar, I wanted to perform Ummrah with Ahmed. Ahmed had already been for Ummrah a number of times, so I felt confident that it would be a very achievable task.
In December 2015, we finally applied for our visas for Saudi Arabia. It was quite an interesting and long experience which even consisted of them giving me injections for meningitis and some other vaccination. Once we gathered all our paper work, the passports were sent to Saudi Embassy for visas.
On 5th January we got a phone call to say that the Visa had arrived. We were completely overjoyed and drove straight to their office to collect it in the evening.
When we got home that evening, I received a phone call from my mum. She was inconsolable and could barely speak. Eventually the words came out of her mouth like some burning fire. My dad’s older brother, his best friend had suddenly passed away. Being thousands of miles away from my family, I never felt so alone despite the fact Ahmed was right next to me.
To say that I have been blessed with the best husband would be an understatement. We had been married for less than a year and already he had seen me at my very worst. Already he had seen me at my lowest. And already we had experienced a death in our family. It was an awful time. But I couldn’t thank the Almighty enough. What were the chances that we had just collected our visas and passports so I was able to attend his funeral in Pakistan.
After coming back to Qatar from Mirpur, I felt so alone. I had spent the last ten days or so with family and coming back to an empty apartment felt soul destroying.
But it all changed.
We went for Ummrah just a week after returning from Mirpur. Ahmed finished work on Thursday and we headed straight to the airport. We were running extremely late and I was petrified of missing the flight. He (Ahmed) has been known to do this before you see…. He missed his last flight to Medinah and ended up going to Saudi for less than 24 hours!
Somehow, miraculously we made it to the airport in time. I hadn’t been out of the house in an Abaya and a Hijab, but I really enjoyed the experience and felt the part.
The journey was quick and we got there before we knew it. We landed in Medinah and headed straight to our hotel which was down the road from Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Prophet’s Mosque)
As I have mentioned before, my faith before Qatar was weak and so was my knowledge. I didn’t think that the striking Green Dome rising above the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad SAW would have such an impact on me. I was mesmerised by the beauty of this Mosque. I sat outside for hours just staring at it as I waiting for Ahmed to come back from inside.
As I entered the mosque and sat down to say my prayers, I noticed that there were women from absolutely all over. Young and old. Able bodied as well as disabled. There were some who looked quite wealthy and others who looked poor. Yet they all looked the same. They all had the same expressions and the same determination in on their faces. We all had the same purpose. Just before we offered our prayers and heard the Azaan, some women next to me offered their prayer mat as I didn’t have one. We didn’t speak the same language, nor were we from the same culture, but she made it clear she wanted me to share her mat. I was taken a back by her kindness and thanked her. As I thanked the women next to me, a little girl came running towards us and offered us a date. There was something so special about this moment. What a way to start out journey to Ummrah.
Day 1: Seeing the sites in Medinah before heading to Mecca in the evening
We woke up feeling really fresh after a good night sleep! We started the day early as Ahmed wanted to show me lots of historical sites. We prayed Nafls in all the Mosques that we saw.
We timed it so we could return back in time for Jummah to pray in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi. This will perhaps be one of my favourite memories from the trip. I felt so blessed and overwhelmed to be sat amongst so many other Muslims. As soon as we completed our prayers, we got some lunch from KFC (BAD MOVE) and went back to the hotel to get freshened up.
We didn’t waste any time and quickly grabbed a cab to go to Mecca. We stopped at a Miqat (Miqats are the areas or locations at which pilgrims wear Ihram, either for Hajj or Umrah). We offered two nafls here. This was an odd experience as the women were pushing and shoving all over the place, making it unbearable. Everyone was holding tight onto their shoes and belongings as it was utter chaos. I somehow managed to find a space and got ready to say my prayers.
The journey took between 4-6 hours I believe, could be more. Could be less! All I know was that I was exhausted.
The exertion quickly went away however. As soon as we entered the boundaries of Mecca, it started to rain a little. WOW. What an experience. I never thought I would experience rain or even a bit of drizzle whilst being in Mecca.
We got to our gorgeous hotel in Mecca and I noticed that there was a different buzz around me. Everyone seemed so happy and optimistic.
The moment I laid my eyes on the Kabah’, I couldn’t quite believe I was there. Too thrilled to take photos. Emotions running wild and a sense of feeling blessed was over taking me. It was amazing.
Luckily for me, Ahmed had done this a few times, so we quite quickly began to perform our Ummrah.
I could hear everyone chanting the same words. The same enthusiasm and the same eagerness.
Labaik Allahuma Labaik, labaik la sharika laka labaik, Innal hamda wann’imat laka wal mulk, la sharika lak
Translated this means:
“I stand up for YOUR service, O GOD! I stand up! I stand up! There is no partner with YOU! I stand up for YOUR service! Verily YOURS is the praise, the beneficence, and the dominion! There is no partner with YOU”
Praying Jummah in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi and then completing Ummrah on a Friday too! Oh what an experience!
Day 2: A sleepless night in Mecca
Having a sleepless night in Mecca was not what I had planned. I had really bad S&D. TMI, I know! But I had so many things rushing through my head. Is God punishing me? Are my sins being wiped? Or was it just the KFC?
I was hoping to go to Kabbah to read my Fajr prayer, however , I wasn’t physically able to do this. Ahmed went to say his prayers while I tried to take medication and fix myself up. I didn’t want to waste any time and wanted to experience the Kabbah all over again.
I managed to somehow wake up, have breakfast and headed out to the Kabaah. It was incredible. We offered a few prayers while we were there and also managed to carry out a couple of Tawafs.
What was really incredible about this trip was the fact that just few weeks ago I was mourning for my late uncle. I had never experienced loss like it. My faith in Allah became stronger that month. To think that our visas arrived on the day of his death, allowing me to to go to Pakistan to be with my family. And to think that I could carry out Ummrah upon my return. SubhanAllah.
What was also incredible was that I had got a job in the UK which I was starting in February the same year. I was about to leave the Country I started to call home. And I was about to part from my husband for an unknown amount of months.
My next blog post will be all about long distance relationships and spouse visa processes to the UK.
I have a confession to make. I have never really cared much about visiting Dubai and to be fair, prior to getting married I didn’t really have much knowledge about the Middle East – as you may or may not know from reading my previous blogs.
We got married in April 2015 when I was 25 year old and it was my birthday in June, just a couple of months after the wedding. Just like any girl, especially a sensitive, hopeless romantic who is a proper bollywood ki sauch waaali girl, I couldn’t help but fantasise and wonder how Ahmed was going to treat me on my birthday. Was he going to bring me flowers? Was he going to take me to some fancy dinner? Will he even remember that it’s my birthday?
After all I had come from a family where I was extremely spoilt and birthdays were always a big thing. This made it extra nerve wrecking. If he does forget my birthday, how will I feel? Being so far away from my friends and family, I already felt lonely and isolated. And with it being Ramadan during my birthday, I didn’t think it would be possible to be out all day exploring. I tried not to think too much about it. I tried not to get my hopes up because I would be devastated if my expectations were too high. I didn’t want to be disappointed.
If I remember correctly, Ramadan was due to start 4 or 5 days before my birthday that year.
Ahead of the Holy month of Ramadan starting, it was an uneventful morning when Ahmed woke me up unusually early. As I wasn’t working, the general routine would dictate that I would have stepped out of bed well after Ahmed had gone to work. As I struggled to wake up and had started to rub my eyes, Ahmed announced ‘we’re going to Dubai this evening after work, so pack your bags’. I wish I had a photo of my facial expressions that I could share with you. I couldn’t comprehend what he was talking about. He said he was thinking of telling me in the evening about the trip, a couple of hours before the flight but knew what a control freak I am and decided to give me the full day to pack and get organised.
I spent the entire day panicking and packing. So much excitement and adrenaline, I couldn’t quite believe it. It wasn’t the fact that we were going to Dubai, but the fact that I had absolutely no idea that he had planned it all!
The few hours that Ahmed was at work felt like the longest hours of my life. He eventually came home and we headed straight to the airport! YEY!
Seeing this little (read ‘BIG’) bear at Hammad International Airport soon became my favourite sight.
Here are some facts that I found on google about this gorgeous bear:
The bear is known as the ‘Untitled Lamp Bear’ and is the creation of a Swiss artist ‘Urs Fischer’
The teddy is made out of bronze and weighs around 18-20 tons and it’s height is 23 feet!
We flew via Qatar airways and took the ‘bus’ shuttle equivalent of a flight. The journey was only 45 mins long, however, we were served with food and overall an excellent service. This little chicken panini on the right was DIVINE! I’d fly with them again just for the panini!
It was quite late by the time we arrived in Dubai. The humid air, the noisy hustle and bustle of Dubai was apparent from the minute we landed. There was something quite unique about Dubai as it was so different to Qatar. There were lots of palm trees covered in fairy lights all along the roads, twinkling everywhere. Dubai straight away seemed more liberal and more diverse than Qatar. It was a louder and more flamboyant version of Qatar I felt.
We arrived at this gorgeous Hotel called ‘Manzil Downtown’. Ahmed had already taken me to one of the nicest hotels for our honeymoon, so I’m not going to lie, expectations were high! He had already spoilt me and showed me the best of what we could have so deep down I was hoping that the hotel would be as luxurious and gorgeous as it was in Thailand…. And it was. The hotel was full of character, located only a few minutes walk away from the famous Burj Khalifa. The rooms and general decor around the hotel was completed to a high standard and the service was impeccable.
Day 1: Mall of Emirates, Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa
We started the day off by visiting the Mall of Emirates. I didn’t know the first thing about this mall or what kind of shops were inside. Ahmed said that we’d be having lunch at the HALAL ‘CHEESECAKE FACTORY’. The last time I had any experience of indulging in a Cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory was back in 2011, 4 years ago! I was over the moon to be spending our lunch eating there! I think you can see the excitement and enthusiasm on the photo. Little did I know that the surprises hadn’t stopped just there….
Of course I did not know that Dubai has penguins for crying out loud!! Penguins are supposed to be living in cold climates, right? All my life I have loved Penguins. I find them absolutely adorable. How the male penguin proposes to the female penguin, how the male penguin protects the egg, how they look and the way they walk… I love everything about them. Growing up, my mum would always buy me lots of things with Penguins. Ahmed knew that I loved penguins and it was definitely on my bucket list to meet one, one day.
I didn’t think my wish would be coming true for my 26th birthday though. But it did. He made one of my biggest wishes come true. I got to meet, touch and even KISS a penguin. Just writing about this experience fills my hear with joy.
The Gentoo Penguins reside at the Ski Dubai in the Mall of Emirates. The enclosure consists of several areas including a private pool, a top deck area with rocks, and a private holding area.
We then travelled across to the Dubai Mall. Bearing in mind it was something like 48 Degrees outside. We walked and walked everywhere! I had recently stopped buying clothes and was attempting to live a more minimalist lifestyle so I didn’t want to shop as such. We spent most the time window shopping.
As we entered the mall, I was mesmerised to see a gigantic aquarium all around the Mall as I hadn’t seen anything like it. There were so many unusual things and decor that blew me away.
We walked so much that I was getting really tired. I wasn’t used to being in the heat for so long and hadn’t walked much since being in Thailand. I eventually asked Ahmed to stop for a break. We came across ‘Granny’s Waffles’ and I knew that’s exactly what I wanted. We sat down and ordered the most delicious crepe and waffles to date! The crepe was so thin and fresh, and they weren’t shy of spreading lots of nutella. I was in a happy place!
Just as I thought that the evening was approaching, I thought it was time to head back to the hotel. But wait, of course Ahmed wouldn’t plan such an itinerary. I kept asking him why we were hanging around and what we were waiting for. I didn’t realise he was planning on taking me to the WORLD’s highest building, the Burj Khalifa.
Ahmed had booked some sort of a VIP tour where we were showered with amazing hospitality. We were given refreshments and drinks. The group only consisted of a handful of people and we skipped all the other queues. We made it just in time for the sunset.
After being blown away by the amazing views, sky scrappers and a gorgeous sunset, Ahmed was keen to get back downstairs. I couldn’t understand why. Surely this is it. Surely the surprises are going to end now. But no. We ended up making it just in time for a boat ride along the mall and watched the ‘Magical Dancing Fountains’ from a small boat.
Our views were completely clear. It was romantic and peaceful as we had the best views and I of course had the best company.
We headed back to the hotel and I was overwhelmed, overjoyed and thrilled to say the least. I had just had the most amazing day of my life. I had absolutely no idea that my husband was going to blow me away with all these surprises and bucket list goals!
TMI Info about to be shared!!!!!
We went back to the hotel and I was extremely sick. I couldn’t sleep due to having severe migraines and pains in my head. This along with S&D, I thought i was going to die. No joke. I had never felt so faint and in agony before in my life. I know it’s TMI (too much information) BUT it’s important. At around 3am, I was almost close to tears and feeling guilty for ruining our perfect day. I was upset that after planning everything to perfection, Ahmed was going to be disappointment that I was so unwell. But he wasn’t. He was more worried about how I was as I even started to cough up blood from being so sick. He then found the nearest pharmacy and got me some tablets. We realised that I had probably had heat stroke due to exhaustion and the heat that I was exposed to.
We decided that the following day we would make sure i stay dehydrated and remain in the shade as much as possible.
Advice & Tip: STAY HYDRATED AT ALL TIMES!!!
Day 2: Palm Jumeirah, Atlantis and Boat ride
I woke up fresh as a daisy, feeling super refreshed and energised even though we had such a horrible night to begin with. Nothing a good shower and breakfast can’t sort out!
We got into a taxi and headed straight to Palm Jumeirah.WOW. The queues were long and there were tonnes of tourists all over the place. Old and young. People from all walks of life, fascinated and amused by the beauty that they were surrounded by. I too had never seen so many different species of the sea life. All different colours, shapes and sizes. It was magical to see! There is a restaurant there where you can have a meal amidst scenery of surpassing loveliness.
After seeing the aquarium, we headed towards a boat ride across Dubai. I had been on many boat rides before, but this one has got to be one of my favourite boat ride experiences ever!! As it was scorching hot, I couldn’t wait for the breeze to hit my face and for the ocean waves to hit me all over.
We were in a boat of around 8 other people. All foreign tourists.
(insert the story about the german speaking of terrorists)
As you can see, the views were incredible. We were lucky as the weather was so clear.
Andddd it is a wrap! This was it. Our very, super quick weekend in Dubai for my 26th Birthday.
After writing this blog-post with the itinerary, I feel inundated with emotions. I actually cannot believe how much organisation and planning Ahmed must have done for this trip to be so perfect. I could never, in a million years have envisaged to have had the most amazing trip with my best friend. I truly feel blessed and grateful to have had the experiences that we did. Truly thankful to Ahmed for being so thoughtful and making my 26th birthday one to remember.
I really don’t think any other birthday’s are going to come close to this one.
This is also where my itchiness for travel began. We had been married for a couple of months and had already explored three countries together. I was desperate to travel more and explore more.
Our next trip abroad was to Saudi when we went for Ummrah. I will be posting that one next, so keep tuned! I am pretty sure you guys will quite enjoy it. It was very personal and emotional to write.
After spending the most gorgeous few days in Thailand for our honeymoon, it was part 2 of the honeymoon. Well for me at least.
I had never been or seen any place like the Middle East. The lavish lifestyle, the brunching trends and the exaggerated bling was all new to me. Prior to meeting my ‘better’ half, I didn’t even know it existed or where it was on the map (yep, this is true). I had very little, if any understanding or knowledge about Qatar or in fact the Middle Eastern culture. In fact, I had absolutely no desire to travel to Dubai or any of the Middle Eastern countries at that point. And O boy how all of this changed.
Moving to Qatar was a challenge. A country so unfamiliar, so alien to my usual surroundings. The foreign language, different culture, unusual clothing and not forgetting the scorching heat was everything that I wasn’t used to. Without my friends and family, I truly thought I was going to drown in my loneliness at times. After spending the first few days setting up my little apartment, I realised I had lots of spare time on my hands. Feeling isolated and alienated I wasn’t sure I would ever fall in love with Qatar; and O boy how all of this changed.
I have realised that as goings get tough, the tough don’t get going straight away, they curl up in bed and contemplate their life, sulk and feel sorry for themselves, and eventually build up the will to get tougher. This and the sudden realisation that I can’t even cook pasta or know how to boil an egg suddenly dawned upon me.
It was overwhelming.
There were so many emotions running through me but I didn’t want to share them with anyone, especially not my family because I didn’t want them to worry about me. I wanted to be the strong and independent person my parents raised me to be. I wanted to enjoy what Qatar had to offer. I wanted to make the most of this time and upon reflecting back was a very precious time at the beginning of the new chapter in my life.
It’s so easy to fall into a vicious void of emptiness, but I was not prepared for that to happen. I kept myself busy by praying, cleaning, ironing and cooking but I needed more. I started to look for jobs, went to the communal gym and caught up with friends via all social media apps… as you do! Thank the Lord for technology, right? Hallelujah!
After Ahmed finished work, we would always go out. Somewhere new, somewhere exotic, somewhere fun (for me anyway). The evenings were always a good laugh and something to look forward to. There was so much to soak in and experience every time we went out. I still remember the warm breeze against my face, my taste buds going crazy over humous, kibbeh and batata harra (mezze from the Lebanese cuisine) as we smoked sheesha in the courtyard of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Or listening to a live orchestra in the gorgeous Museum of Islamic Arts (MIA) park, full of people from all around the world.
The weekends brought me the most excitement though. I say ‘weekends’, but it was only the Saturday as my husband worked SIX, YES SIX days a week! Those Saturdays however are going to stay with me forever. I felt that it was everything and more that we needed as newly weds. We hadn’t spent any time together before the wedding, so this was our chance to get to know one another and to spend quality time together.
I soon started work and that was a complete different story altogether. Employment in the Middle East was a real eye opener for me. I soon came to know that the rosey picture that everyone paints of the Middle East is far from reality. That even I was completely unaware of what really goes on behind the scenes. I soon realised the bitter truth that this is a land where there’s a constant battle. A place where only the fittest can survive. A tragic place where when one begins to feel at home, they’re reminded that they’re merely living in a house which in essence was never theirs. Discrimination. Lack of justice. Inequality. Such immoral acts are experienced by many on a daily if not hourly basis. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer in places like Doha. The man who served his employers for 30+ years and raised his entire family in Qatar gets informed that he has 28 days to leave the country. His children struggle with their sense of identity and belonging. That is the reality. That is the story for many migrants in places like Qatar, Dubai or others in the Middle East. I guess it is important to be aware and truly acknowledge people’s sacrifices and not get lost in our own little bubble.
Nonetheless, this is also a place where you will meet the most genuine, caring and sincere human beings. People who are selfless and willing to sacrifice a great deal to help others. Pure hearts, with many stories and tales to tell. All nomads, living without a plan. Travellers with an interesting journey. The Pakistani who was raised in Nigeria and later moved to Dubai and now Qatar. The Pakistani who has spent her entire life in Qatar but knows this is not home. The Filipino nurse who has left her kids in the Philippines so her kids can study. People who want to give and give without wanting to receive anything, and that to with a smile on their face.
I will never forget what Qatar has given me. How much I grew as a person and how much I developed spiritually and personally. Qatar wasn’t only pleasing to the eye but gave my soul comfort and solace in it’s own unique way. I loved every moment of living there and cannot wait to share some of my favourites places. The places that I will truly treasure forever and places that I urge you visit if you ever get the chance to visit this gorgeous country.
Places to visit
The Doha Corniche
Everyone will tell you about ‘The Corniche’ when you go to Qatar or talk about Qatar.
The Doha Corniche is a waterfront promenade extending for many kilometers along Doha Bay in the capital city of Doha, Qatar. Perhaps around 15-20 mins from the airport. I’d say majority of the good hotels are around this area too!
This is where the locals hang out for hours on end, spending time with their loved ones. You’ll see people sat there having a picnic, flying a kite, exercising or just watching the world go by. I definitely preferred the latter. I could sit for hours people watching and putting the world to right.
You’d see the ‘Labourers’ at the very top of the corniche, in awe of whats around them. Their tired faces and sun burnt skin. That itself that an experience. Seeing the labourers enjoys the few hours a day that they had free from work. But as you went further down the Corniche, you’d start seeing more family friendly and female friendly places where these working class heroes were not allowed.
Best to visit anytime during the winter months and early evenings in summers (unless it is too humid). Overall a perfect place to spend a couple of hours with a iced coffee or an ice cream in your hand or be it a delicious chicken shawarma wrap.
Souq is an Arabic word which means “market”. Souq Waqif is a place full of restaurants, sheesha lounges, spices, golds, perfumes, animals and explicitly traditional garments. It’s architectural design of traditional Qatari style has been preserved over years ago with mazes and undefined geometric pattern as it characterises. The Souq will take you back in time and it will definitely give you an experience like no other if you haven’t been to a place like it before.
Located across the road from the Doha Corniche, it’s very hard to miss the Souq which is always hustling and bustling with laughter and joy. It tends to get very busy during the evenings as all locals and expats decide to finally leave their houses and enjoy some humid air! One can spend hours wandering the alleyways of the Souq, smoking sheesha, shopping or just enjoying a hot/cold drink as people walk on by and soak it all up.
The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) and Park
MIA is a museum located on one end of the long Corniche in Doha. Once you have aimlessly walked along the Corniche, visited the Souq, it is almost time to visit the gorgeous MIA to watch the most beautiful sunset.
Build in it’s very own unique character, MIA is classy, modern and informative. There are tonnes of facilities inside the 5-storied museum, including temporary and permanent galleries, a gift shop, a library, a cafe, and a restaurant. There are also prayer rooms inside to cater to Muslim visitors.
I remember visiting the MIA park for the very first time when there was an orchestra playing. It was a fun musical evening with musicians from all around the world. MIA is known to have lots of different activities and festivities throughout the year. Be sure to check their website to see what events are taking place when you visit. It gives you a real flavour of the culture and most importantly the diversity that exists in the Country.
The state Mosque Qatar is one of the largest mosques in Qatar and is a stunning mosque to visit. It is located a bit further than the Souq, Corniche and MIA, so I recommend that you either hire a car during your stay in Qatar or take a taxi to these places!
At night it lights up and you’re left totally mesmerised as you can see the rest of Doha lit up! The coloured stained glass windows reflect on the white marble floor, that is how sparkly clean and prestige this place is!
Be Warned: In order to enter the mosque, women MUST be wearing an Abaya. I remember the first time I went and didn’t have an Abaya. An Abaya is essentially a cloak which is a simple, loose over-garment, essentially a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world. The security guard quickly ran inside and advised me that I was not able to enter without an Abaya! Lesson was learnt very quickly and I made sure to carry my Abayah around at all times. But Abayas are provided for visitors at the mosque.
Katara Cultural Village
This place was my FAVOURITE to visit on evenings! I loved walking around Katara for hours and ending the evening with some delicious food. I feel that whoever envisioned Katara had great foresight. The location is perfect for people of all ages and all interests. It is located next to a beach, so lots of sand and sea for those that want to sunbathe and swim. There are also lots of different restaurants with various cuisines. It also has an amazing amphitheater with a grand and opulent structure.
The best thing to do is to visit just before sunset and enjoy that it’s got to offer!
The Pearl-Qatar is an artificial island spanning nearly four million square meters! Just like the name says, it looks like a string of pearls from above. It predominantly consists of lots of modern, expensive and luxurious residents. However, locals and tourists also tend to visit ‘The Pearl’ to get a feel of the marina, the yachts and the boats. I never went on the boats, but I have been told that some of the boats can be hired and taken to the corniche and beyond.
It also has lots of restaurants and cafe’s which are affordable and relaxing. If you like spotting cars then this is the place to be: we saw Ferraris, Lamborghinis and a variety of supercars scattered all over the car parks. We usually used to stay for around 2-3 hours, just to go for long walks, cold drinks and yes, people watching! Ok so we’re getting a bit of a theme. I love to people watch!
I was VERY VERY blessed and lucky that I got to experience dune bashing, sun, sand and sea many times during my stay in Qatar. We had a Jeep which meant that we could easily visit the desert as and when we wished. All it meant was that we needed to take the air out of the tyres before beginning our adventure. Mind you, it is the most tiring day out EVER! You don’t realise, but after hours of driving up and down sand dunes, it can hurt your back and make you sleep like a baby at night.
We also managed to find a specific destination in the desert where we always had the ‘beach’ all to ourselves. YES THAT’S RIGHT. We pinned a specific location where we realised no one ever visited. It meant that we had the entire sea to ourselves. So a dip in the sea followed by a picnic and some soothing music was my version of a ‘perfect moment’.
If you’re just visiting Qatar on holiday, I am certain there are tours that you can book in order to get a similar experience. I am not sure what it consists of, but its worth a quick google or if you want more info, I can ask a friend for you!
Zekreet and Film city
If you want to feel that you just got onto your flying carpet and rolled into the world of Aladdin then here it is. The landscape is so unique and captivating! It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere and you’d definitely not be able to get there without a reliable Sat Nav/ Google maps: although after a few visits you will be a pro at locating it.
Film city can be reached from Doha by following a Doha – Dukhan road (about 90 km) then turn right when you see Zikreet route sign. Again, it is probably best to do this via a tour or hiring a SUV and using your GPS to get around.
We only visited this place once and because we were already aware that there were no Cafes/restaurants in the vicinity of this place, we got some food with us and ate it on the way. I’d advise you to do the same so you’re not starving and dehydrated by the time you get there!
The nearest food places are in Dukhan which is round the corner. You can find a McDonald’s and a small market to cater for most needs.
Villagio Mall, Torch Doha and Aspire Park
The Torch – Doha
If you have some extra time, the places mentioned above are also worth paying a visit. Villagio Mall makes you feel that you’ve magically arrived in Venice or perhaps a copy cat version of Las Vegas’s Bellagio (not that i have ever been there)! But I have heard that the inspiration was from Bellagio in Vegas. The mall has all the high street shops as well as designer clothing. BUT not just that. Villagio has a cinema, indoor theme park, ice skating and some icestone ice cream, NOM! Perfect way to spend a few hours when the heat outside is unbearable!
Villagio was my favourite place to visit for food. The Steak and Chicken Florentine at ‘The Butcher, Shop and Grill’ or ‘Prawn Dynamite’ from PF Chang are a MUST!
So yeah, if it’s scorching hot outside and you are itching you be out and about, Villagio is a great place to hang out and spend time!
HOW PRETTY AND CUTE?! Obviously I am going to be biased. As we lived in Wakrah, Souq Wakra was not very far for us which meant that we visited this little Souq on a very regular basis. At the time this place was fairly/somewhat underdeveloped I’d say as it was a work in progress. This suited me fine because it meant it was less crowded and more intimate for the people who actually went.
Over the months of visiting, you could see it getting busier and busier. More people were becoming aware of it and traveled all across Qatar to visit. It has a variety of cuisines on the beach front, but my favourite drink was the ‘Caramel Crunch’ from Coffee Beanery. My mouth is watering as I type about it. It was the yummiest cold drink I have ever had and I was pretty addicted to it. Even the employers knew my order, I’m sure!
Last but not least, the hospitality in Qatar is exceptional, especially by the Filipino workers who will always be polite and charming no matter where go. Or at least that was my experience. So if you ever visit Qatar, I urge you to always make an effort with the workers who always have a story to tell and most likely have sacrificed a lot to be serving you.
One of the best things about living in the Middle East is definitely the luxury of being able to travel to so many places. While we lived there, we managed to visit Dubai for my surprise birthday weekend and also went for Ummrah over a weekend!
Stay tuned for the next Blogpost about my surprise weekend away to…….DUBAI followed by my Umrah experience!!