5 things you definitely CANNOT do in Dubai.

There is no denying that Dubai has successfully transitioned from oil rich emirate to metropolitan tourist hotspot. Tourism is now it’s no. 1 source of income. While it may not be for everyone, shopping, restaurants, unparalleled luxury and opportunities for economic betterment attracts tourists and a workforce from all over the world. As the saying goes, “If you want to meet the world, come to London”. Well, as a Londoner who recently visited Dubai, I can tell you the same felt true of Dubai. It’s workforce in particular – hotel staff, shop staff, restaurant staff, drivers add sparkle to what might otherwise feel like a super shiny, playground.

It’s global workforce is one of the most interesting aspect of this desert turned (man-made) oasis. Conversations and interactions were enriched by each person I met who added an interesting perspective to my experience. And they came from all over the world – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Laos, Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal and South America bringing an old world quaintness to a city so determined to appear modern.

Whenever I refer to visiting the Gulf states, I am asked the same questions by eager travellers who would like to get the most out of their trip without breaking the rules. So, here are 5 common travel questions about Dubai answered:

  1. WHAT do you wear?

    Well, if you’re within the confines of your hotel or resort wear ANYTHING – bikinis, strappy tops, shorts, mini skirts, long skirts, sheer tops, ball gown and tiara if you so wish. However, you will need to be more conservative and mindful in public spaces such as malls, souks and public transport. Opt for short sleeved tops instead of strappy tops and keep your skirts and shorts knee length or below. You maybe walking around in a desert but avoid wearing anything too sheer in public spaces. When in doubt my secret weapon is a scarf. Carry one in your handbag and pull it out to cover your shoulders if you feel your attire maybe causing mild offence. It shows respect for local customs and will be received well.

  2. PDA

    This is short and simple – NO. A peck on the cheek is as far as you should go and only with people you know well. Goes without saying – please don’t do this with strangers, especially if they are female! Save your amorous displays of affection for when you’re within the privacy of your hotel room.

  3. Getting Around

    If like me, you love to explore a new place on foot then Dubai is simply not the place. It is far too hot to do so during the day and people seem to love driving. Everything is ostentatious so luxury cars are everywhere. However, I have it on good authority that the Metro system is fantastic – clean, safe and gives breathtaking views of the city. So, don’t forget to hop on a train.

  4. Consumption of Alcohol

    All hotels serve alcohol and are fairly relaxed about this. In fact, Dubai is known for its boozy work brunches. However, outside of the hotels alcohol is not readily available and you should avoid trying to buy it. If you decide to eat at a restaurant that is not attached to a hotel it is very unlikely that they will have a licence to serve alcohol.

  5. Visiting during Ramadan

    During the holy month of Ramadan everyone you meet will be fasting. It is not mentioned or discussed but you can safely assume that they are. Be especially mindful if you happen to visit during this time. It is forbidden to eat and drink in public during the day. Hotels and restaurants have designated areas for visitors offering dining facilities (usually hidden from the public with curtains or blinds). Small places such as coffee shops are all closed until sunset. However, when it’s time to break fast (Iftar) you can feast like a sheikh. Most hotels offer traditional Arabian buffets which break the fast. Be sure to join in!

 

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Marrakech, Marrakech.

What can be said of Marrakech that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? Plenty. A city so alluring that Yves Saint Laurent’s  ashes are scattered here in Jardin Majorelle. Marrakech’s magnetism is very real. It charms your soul out of your body like a snake…teasing it, caressing it and hypnotising with colours, noise, smells and an unforgiving heat. You will watch your soul dance a slow dance in a hazy mirage in front of your very eyes. And it will mesmerise you. I experienced serious deja vu here. The unmistakable feeling that somehow, I had been here before, in another time. That I had yearned to be back for all eternity.

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The pink city – Marrakech

A Perfect Arrival

From the moment my feet touched the red earth, all my senses went in to over-drive. The pre-arranged airport transfer seemed perfectly normal until the driver stopped in the middle of traffic and declared that we had arrived. I could see nothing but a chaos of vehicles, animals and people. Cars and trucks moved around with no clear direction and motorcycles weaved in and out of the way of the cars. Donkey carts, monkeys on chains and carts stacked with watermelon weaved themselves between the cars and motorcycles. The heat burned in to my skin. In utter confusion I climbed out of the car, to the middle of traffic, as my driver pointed to a hand cart and said,

“You have to take this rest of the way. The car cannot go to your hotel.”

My first thought was that this was a prank. It wasn’t. Another man to whom the driver referred to as Ibrahim simply took my bags out of the car, without a word, and loaded the cart. I had little choice but to trust and follow Ibrahim across the road, dodging cars and donkeys.

As we walked off, the driver yelled, “Don’t worry. He works for your hotel.”

“Perfect”, I thought. I had arrived in Marrakech.

As it turned out, Ibrahim did work for my hotel and he and I became friends along the way. As we walked, I realised that the lanes inside the medina, where I had chosen to stay, were too narrow for cars and all of this was perfectly normal. Ibrahim pointed things out to me as we walked. He showed me the local school, where he prayed and where to go for food. Our walk together only lasted 5 minutes and I was sorry when it ended. I was having a great time. I couldn’t have planned a better arrival than this.

I was staying at a small, traditional Morroccan riad, a stone’s throw from Jemaa el-Fnaa, which inspired the UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. So, needless to say that there was plenty to see, hear and touch but more on that later. We walked through narrow winding lanes past beautiful doors and arrived at the riad. It was all that I could have hoped for and more. They had prepared for my arrival and I had the best room in the house according to the staff – a 3 level room that opened out to the indoor courtyard and fountain. There was an orange tree heavy with fruit outside my window. To the right, Bougainvillea climbed up a pillar and covered the balconies above. I had arrived at a Garden of Eden without the sin.

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Fountain pool.

Jemaa el-Fnaa

I could hardly wait to get outside and feel the full Marrakech effect. I showered, changed and headed straight to Jemaa el-Fnaa. The narrow passages of the medina, which surround this main square, were packed with colourful objects of every kind; spices, shoes, jewel stones, soap and glass everywhere. Hawkers shout across to each other as well as to passers by. There are deals to be made and bargains to be had.

I walked around this market for so long that I got lost and couldn’t find my way back. (A word of advice to anyone wishing to do the same…download the City Mapper app. It works well inside the medina and you will not be at the mercy of the locals to find your way out as I was). Eventually, I did find my way back to Jemaa el-Fnaa and was lucky enough to watch the sun go down over the square. Horse drawn carriages, bicycles and people made shadows against the backdrop of Koutoubia mosque as people moved around in an invisible maze.

Tourists and travellers flocked to nearby roof top restaurants, cameras in hand, to watch the evening unfold. Locals simply went about their day. For those of us on the roof tops Jemaa el-Fnaa became a theatre where the lights dimmed and the actors were on stage. It was Ramadan and the call to prayer melodic and gentle echoed through the square. The sun began to set on cue. Everything became still, frozen for a moment. I couldn’t capture it because by now I was immersed in it. I did not want to break the spell.

Once  the call to prayer was heeded the square became louder and louder with the clattering of plates, the sound of a million voices and the preparation of food for breaking fast. I walked down and sat at a long table occupied by a mixture of locals and tourists. The mood was light. It felt like a million different aromas were rising out of the medina. Mint tea flowed like water, open fires grilled meat, fish and seafood and colourful tagines and crockery click clacked against the chattering of people sitting down to their evening meal. I stayed, ate, talked with total strangers, laughed and ate some more and it was almost midnight before I left the table.

Madrasa Ben Youssef

The next day, I ventured to Madrasa Ben Yousef.  I walked in the opposite direction to the main square and entered what felt like a burrow of even narrower passages. Ornamental doors added colourful breaks along what seemed like unending lines of arches and terracotta walls. I walked through market stalls, kitchens and was almost ready to give up when the tiny lane I was on abruptly ended. I could see a narrow muddy alley way through a low arch with a handwritten lopsided sign above it that said Madrasa. I had expected a grander entrance, a guard or two perhaps or golden gates even. It was a humble little entrance to what lay inside.

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Madrasa Ben Youssef

I walked through the alley and arrived at the Madrasa – a 14th century Islamic school. Intricate geometric patterns were carved into walls, ceilings and the roof. The floors felt cool against the heat in the air. They were covered in jewel coloured tiles of green, blue, yellow and red. I moved around and made my way upstairs to the classrooms and living quarters which are carved in cedar wood and marble. Tiny rooms no bigger than a few feet. I needed to bend in half to walk through their doors to look out to the courtyard below. The school is truly beautiful and it feels natural to spend hours here admiring it. However, it also attracts big crowds so you’re ushered out from it before you’ve really taken it all in. So if you’re visiting be sure to have all your cameras at the ready.

I planned little else after this and returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa. It is a great place for people watching. Spending an afternoon here is effortless. There are snake charmers, medicine men, tooth pullers, acrobats and even fortune tellers…an endless list of intriguing humans. Stalls piled high with fruit sell orange, mango, avocado or banana juice in any combination you like. The evening drew in and the square once again began to fill with people until it was the heaving carnival of wonder of the previous night. I sat in the square for the repeat performance.

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I spent just two days in Marrakech and it certainly wasn’t enough time. I was not here to fit things in a schedule. I really just wanted to BE here. There was liberation from being lost amongst the immense sea of faces. There was also a familiarity that I still cannot explain. I found it difficult to say good bye to Marrakech so I didn’t. I said, ”Until next time”.

How to Take Great Photos for Your Blog.

Being a blogger of any kind today requires one to be a writer, photographer, business person, marketing guru and all round media mogul. Simply writing up an account of your experience no longer cuts it in the blogosphere. So, how does one keep up with the ever evolving world of blogging?

My blog is only a year old and I’ve had to learn new skills very quickly – you need to hit the ground running. As such, if I had to pick one single thing that has helped my blog to stand out, I would have to say that it’s photography. The most successful bloggers I know, use great images to capture and convey moods, tastes, smells and experiences. When it comes to promoting your blog on social media, a single great picture will speak a thousand words. Furthermore in travel blogging, in partiular, being able to take a good photograph is vital.

Until recently, I was using my iPhone6 for taking pictures. It has a great camera and was easy to use. When it came to editing, apps such as VSCO, Snapspeed, Mextures, Squareready and Camera+ are simple to use and great for use within the phone. Life was good!

However, a year into setting up my blog, I was ready to move it up a notch. I had long toyed with the idea of purchasing a digital camera and finally took the leap and invested in one. But…things didn’t go as planned – I missed the convenience of using my phone. I didn’t like how heavy my new camera was and resented having to carry it around! I had no idea how to use it and would occasionally shoot in ”auto” mode. Consequently, I went back to using my phone (yes, I did!).

Convinced that this particular camera was not serving my needs, a few months later I invested in a DSLR camera – Cannon EOS1300D. It certainly suited me better as a complete novice. I liked how it felt in my hands. Also, as it’s a slightly older model, I was less intimidated by it. We clicked! (Pun intended). Still, I had no idea how to use it. I knew from having researched cameras FOREVER that my new purchase had great potential. I started shooting in “auto” mode and simply LOVED what I was photographing. It captured people, places and objects exactly as I saw them. It was perfect! As much as I loved my new(ish) camera I still had no idea how to use it out of ”auto”. So, I did what I do best – RESEARCH.

I shopped around for a beginners photography course that would help me. I wanted to become a more confident photographer and learn how to use my camera. I came across The London Institute of Photography based at the Truman Brewery in uber cool Brick Lane, East London. I emailed the school to discuss my needs and the response was as quick as it was helpful. I enrolled on the Beginners Photography Course which is taught over 2 days.

So, a few days later, new camera in hand, I arrived at LIoP to begin my journey into becoming a better blogger. My tutor was Holger Pooten, Head of the institute who has over 20 years of professional experience. I was in good hands! The class was small (around 8 people) so it was intimate and engaging.

Day 1 – Fundamentals of Photography

The course began with a great introduction to my camera. It laid the foundation for the rest of the course. Within the first hour I was already beginning to see my camera in a new light. I was amazed at just how much it could do. We also touched briefly on the history of cameras and photography. There were examples from great photographers old and new. I was totally immersed. After lunch we went out into the bustling streets outside to put our skills in to practice. What a difference it made to my confidence to operate my camera outside ”auto” mode. I felt in total control. I began to see light, movement, objects and people from a whole new perspective.

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Practice shot – Day 1.
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Practice shot – Day 1

Day 2 – Shooting Variety on Location

The second day of the course brought yet more in depth knowledge of the basics of photography. We then moved on to really beginning to understand the camera as a tool for interpreting the world. By this point, I no longer viewed the camera as something outside of myself. I started to understand that my camera was a part me. I began to treat it like my own eyes. The tutor took us to the bustling street food market in Brick Lane and allowed us to put our theory into practice. The light changed from stall to stall and I had to adjust my camera for each shot. All the while I was strolling around the market, my tutor attentively coached me through my settings helping me to understand my camera better.

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Practice shot of food – Day 2
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Practice shot of detail – Day 2

Consequently, I now carry my DSLR camera with me everywhere. I have formed a new bond with it and am able to convey emotions far better. It is certainly improving engagement with my audience. While I am still very new to this approach of taking pictures, I have invested in extra lenses (great advice offered by my tutor Holger at LIoP) and am the proud owner of multiple tripods. I am finally able to connect the dots and it’s liberating. After just 2 days I had learnt to take pictures that I wouldn’t have thought possible before. To think that this was just a beginners course!

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My very first photograph (pre edit) using manual settings and mini tripod (placed on the floor) – Roman amphitheatre, Nimes, France.

Finally, I took this picture on my last trip to Nimes, in the South of France using everything I had learnt. I was happy that I could begin my journey into taking exactly the kind of pictures I want. It makes all the difference to the kind of blog you want to create. Most importantly, when it comes to monetising your blog you definitely need better images to sell yourself. So, for me it makes all the sense to invest in my career. The greatest advice I can offer anyone starting out would be to invest in learning photography, learn how to edit your images, invest in equipment, invest in your blog. It is the best advice I can offer. Happy blogging!

 

For more information of the course I took and other courses contact:

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The Tea Bus Comes to Town!

Picnic on a Bus

It is a universally acknowledged fact that you can never be bored in London. However, every once in a while something comes along that is so simple that it’s genius! What do you get if you cross the quintessentially British tradition of afternoon tea with the iconic Routemaster? Behold…B Bakery‘s afternoon tea bus tour!

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Tea and cakes served on a double decker as you take in London’s landmarks is the brilliant idea behind the Afternoon Tea Bus Tour. The pick up points are Victoria coach station or Northumberland Avenue which are easily accessible for all. So whether you’re visiting London for first time OR are a born and bred Londoner who happens to love London and tea THIS is for you!

London Sightseeing

We boarded the bus from London Victoria bus station and I was almost giddy with excitement! The tables were set and the bus was decorated with gorgeous flowers all around.

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Picture source: B-bakery.com

Starting from Victoria we travelled through the prettiest parts of London. The tour took us to Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Royal Albert Hall, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. As we munched our way through delicious sandwiches and quiches the recorded tour guide narrated interesting and little known snippets of London’s history.

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Cupcakes!

We hit the cupcakes as the bus reached Embankment and headed towards Big Ben. As for these sweet treats? They are to die for! The sponges were as light as air and the frosting simply melted on my tongue. The diced pineapple custard tarte dusted with cinnamon was simply heaven. I could have eaten a dozen!

I opted for a cappuccino from the drinks menu and it was served in the prettiest travel mug with a lid to avoid any nasty spillages. Furthermore, as the tour was wrapping up we were served English scones with clotted cream and jam that we simply COULD NOT leave behind.

Oh, and you know what else? If you’re not particularly fond of meat or have special dietary requirements, vegetarian, gluten free and Halal menu options are also available.

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The tour ended back at our starting point and a good time was definitely had by all. The tea bus tour runs daily and I couldn’t recommend it enough. I had so much fun and even as a Londoner I felt excited to see my home in this way. Book yourself a ticket and enjoy this ride, I say.