Dubai or not Dubai

Is there a question?

After watching this movie some years ago, I vowed never to go to Abu Dhabi. I have since learned that it was filmed in Morocco but still the apparent luxury of the Emirate cities deterred any desire to visit.

I assumed it would be like Las Vegas on steroids.

I was right.

Before moving to Saudi Arabia, some people asked if I would visit Dubai. At that time, I was living in Las Vegas and told everyone there was no need to go to such a city. I liked simplicity and was looking forward to moving into my simple little fishing town/university somewhere between the sea and the desert.

Of course I could not have been more wrong about where I was moving to. There is nothing simple about KAUST. We practically live in a resort.

There are many things about KAUST I was not expecting, such as the grandeur of the buildings and laboratories or the fact that almost everything is taken care of for you, (everything except maintaining your own sanity). I expected a lack of alcohol and dance clubs at KAUST but I was not expecting to miss those particular things so much. After living there for some months, I finally understood why places like Las Vegas exist. Somehow the world must maintain its balance.

Our trip to Dubai happened to be a layover on our way to Taiwan for a conference. We would have a little less than 24 hours in this glitzy city and best of all, I would be seeing a friend who was now living there. Gjiro had moved to Dubai a little after I had moved to Saudi. I knew I would run into her eventually.

We made some arrangements before the trip, informing Gjiro of our itinerary and buying five tickets to the water park. Diego wanted to make reservations at a seven star restaurant in this hotel. I was not sure we could afford it, even with our oil money. Once we arrived and met Gjiro, she quickly brought us down to earth. She told us that if you merely wanted to walk in, you would have to pay for that. So the story of expensive places was true but so was the story of normal and affordable places as she told us what she had planned for us instead. It was beginning to feel more familiar. Vegas and Dubai are both rapidly built cities in places where they should not exist. Yet there they are in all of their ostentation for the world to see. But they are also made up of people, normal people who build their normal lives.

After Gjiro fetched us from the airport, we went to her apartment to chat and relax. From there we headed to the Atlantis waterpark which is by far the fanciest waterpark I have ever seen. For someone who has never been to the middle east, the sight of a bikini clad woman walking side by side a burqini clad woman might be a funny juxtaposition.

We definitely had a lot of fun, the rides making me feel like a kid. Once we had our fill of water slides, we headed back to Gjiro’s where we showered and got ready for the night. After dinner, it was back toward the palm tree island where we would be watching the game between Germany and Ghana under a tent. Gjiro is from Germany so out of respect, I cheered for her team but we all secretly wanted Ghana to take that game.

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Dubai is a good place if you are having mini-skirt withdrawals. Apparently it is also a good place to meet Saudi princes with ferraris but that is not my story to tell…

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Ode to Las Vegas

Written December 27, 2012.

Some people call it a quarter-life crisis. I know it as the natural order of things. All of nature moves in cycles, it ebbs and flows between creation and destruction. I was due for a rebirth. And what more hospitable womb could there be than the beautiful Desert? Warm, comforting, unchanging, surrounded by mountains that bear their rock layers for the world to see, unashamed of their history. The land always just is, no pretending.

This is a story of rebirth and reconciliation.

It was 2011, I had just moved back to Las Vegas after five and a half years away, having spent the last one in South Africa.

So many things had been left unfinished. There was so much to do, I became overwhelmed. I froze as I attempted to bear the weight of all I had been given in this life, my blessings, my gifts, my privilege; and forcibly tried to manufacture something out of it all. I was finished with school, I was 25, why couldn’t I save the world? I began to feel extremely inadequate. You see, I did not expect to be running my own NGO or have my first book published the same year I turned 25 but I did expect to be working toward these things and I was not. Not only was I not, I was suffering from extreme energy blocks. Nothing was flowing, not creativity, nor motivation, not even ink to paper. What was flowing, and in vehement streams, was anger and judgment. I did not realize this right away, at the time everything was dark as if I was a seed in the ground. In fact, my favorite yoga pose during this period was child’s pose where one is folded into a tiny ball, forehead and knees on the ground. It was the only thing that felt right. I did not like this anger but now I see that it had to come out.

My year in South Africa was a pivotal one. It is difficult to describe all it has revealed and continues to reveal. One thing I do know is that it broke the dam of repressed anger my spirit had accumulated over the years, anger I did not know I had. My spirit, like everyone else’s on the planet, has a profound necessity for freedom. South Africa made me confront the reality of my world. A world full of fences, walls, and all things meant to separate. Apartheid means separateness. Yes, apartheid is no longer policy or law, yes the country is in its 19th year of democracy, yes the people are amazing and diverse, things are looking up for the country… I was not judging South Africa. I was judging the United States. South Africa held a mirror, reflecting our injustices and my own history of assimilation.

“F*ck the melting pot” is a direct quote from my head. My head was swimming with these thoughts. It was always f-something: colonization, globalization, “development”, exploitation, exportation, “English-only”, racism, Arizona, white suburbs, rich people, Republicans and Democrats, THE BORDER, the media, automobiles, airplanes. You may ask why so angry at autos and planes when they have been so useful in transporting me around my earth? I was connecting everything with inequality. Can you imagine how exhausting that was? It is commonly known that most of the world does not drive or fly. It is also known, albeit uncommonly, that when you judge someone else, you are judging yourself. So my self-righteous hate of injustice manifested into all sorts of discontent and anger at myself.

During my years as an undergrad, I had grown into a mighty avocado tree, my fruit was rich and fed many. But nature moves in circles. I had been used to pruning on a regular basis, but this was different, this was slow decay from the inside out. The pruning had ceased since so many of my limbs were small and brittle anyway.

At this time there was so much negative energy in me – the fear, the hate, the loss of faith, the confusion, the loneliness, the bitterness, the lackluster spirit – all of these had been my companions. No more, I wanted these spirits no more. I longed and desired to be united with the Light. The light that created the universe, the light that resides in me. I had for too long obsessed over the planks in others’ eyes, not realizing mine had the plank and theirs only dust. I had been so certain of my rightness and superiority, I had neglected being human.

There was no denying that my spirit had become static. It took a year of physically moving my body to bring momentum back into my life.

Las Vegas is where I began a regular practice of yoga. At first it was only mechanical: move this arm, that leg, remember to breathe. It slowly evolved into a moving meditation and from there it was not long before it became an act of worship. I was discovering my body for what seemed like the first time. All my life I have held a sacred connection to nature, yet even when I was among the wisest of rivers, there was something still separating us. Nature is sensual and our bodies are nature. How can we connect to the full glory of creation when we are not even connected to our own sentient being? If my body was the interface between my world and I, I needed to feel it and live in it and once I began doing that, all things became new.

Not only was yoga the glue for my mind, body, and spirit, but it also became a bridge to the eternal source of my soul within.

There is a Sufi proverb that says,

“I searched for myself and found God, I searched for God and found myself.”

It was during these Vegas years that I experienced a transformation previously unfathomable in such a soul-sucking city. But whatever darkness infiltrates our famous strip, it is surrounded by a halo of healing sandstone, sunsets, and desert springs.

Of course, the great outdoors was not the only medicine prescribed to me, the story would be incomplete without the heart of my family. Leaving academia helped me dwell more in feminine energy which was physically represented by my mother and the red canyons around my home, both warm and womblike. I thought I had moved back to Las Vegas to “be there” for my family but really it was I who needed them.

I also planted myself in communities that cultivated health and vitality and offered a sense of family. One of these communities was Barefoot Sanctuary, a yoga studio. After my first session at Barefoot, I already felt old skins begin to shed. I had realized that I had been trying to extend my old life, stretch it out to cover the confusing years. I was trying to live from the outside-in, surviving off outside stimulus. But emergency resuscitation was not working. It was not revival but rebirth that my heart needed. Finally the borders had begun to come down and once again I would live from a full, free and fiery heart. And once again, I would know my heart for the first time.

To all of you going through your own transformations:
Take heart, take inventory and shed what no longer serves you.
Make a change, exterior conditions change when you tap into the power within.
Hold on for the ride.

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I recently had a birthday. Here are 28 things I’ve picked up along the journey (in no particular order):

Men are simple creatures.

People are wrong.

Breathing is underrated.

Neither science nor religion have all the answers.

Be well to do well.

Energy moves.

One does not learn how to dance, one remembers how to dance.

Sexual selection theory makes sense in my evolution textbook but not in my love life.

Vitality is everything.

Rules are there to be broken.

You create your life.

The time is always now.

Feel, touch, listen, smell and taste your present moment.

Change your thoughts, change your life.

Everything worth knowing I have learned from Nature.

I am Woman.

Sooner is better than later, now is best.

Sex is a good thing.

When the heart breaks, it lets light shine through the cracks.

My internal compass is forever pointed toward freedom.

Community is vital.

A small change is a big change.

Trees remind me of who I am.

There is no such thing as ‘living in fear’. It is either one or the other.

A flexible body means a flexible mind.

Medicine is all around you.

If the universe is random, I won the lottery.

All will be fine.

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