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The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Dubai is certainly not budget travel. This Emirate made its name with its bigger-the-better-no-luxury-spared attitude (that ultimately led to a $10 billion bailout from its neighbor Abu Dhabi). But I had covered this rise and stumble at my old job and wanted to take in the place with my own eyes. And that’s exactly what we did. Nellu and I spent the four days we were there primarily gawking at buildings.

The biggest and best of these buildings is certainly the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building for the moment. Formerly known as the Burj Dubai, they changed the name to Burj Khalifa in honor of  Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi. Apparently $10 billion dollars buys you a great deal of flattery. (Nellu would like to point out that the title president in this case refers to the man in charge of running the “constitutional federation of absolute monarchies.”)

Photo by Nellu

It was truly a spectacular sight in person. The way the intense desert sun reflects on the glass and metallic structure makes it seem more fitting for Lex Luthor’s lair in a Superman movie than the homes, offices, and hotel it houses in real life.

Washing the windows of the world’s tallest building. Photo by Nellu

We went to visit the Burj Khalifa twice. The first time was the morning we arrived in Dubai. The second time, we went at night to see fountain show in the moat that surrounds the building and take the elevator to the 124th floor observation deck.  Over the last year, I’ve come to believe that water and light shows are all over-rated, but the one outside the Burj Khalifa did deliver. We also had fun taking pictures from so high above the flat night landscape.

The view from the top of the world’s tallest building. Photo by Nellu

But my favorite thing about the Burj Khalifa is the complete lack of irony its marketing team has when it touts the greatness and the achievement of building a really tall building. The phrase, “The word impossible is not in the leaders’ dictionaries,” greets visitors waiting to go up to the top deck.

You can get a better sense of the hype in this promotional video:


The other must see building for me in Dubai was the Burj Al Arab.

My favorite Burj Al Arab photo by Nellu.

It’s Dubai’s hotel that looks like a sail. Interesting side note, a friend told me that advertisers aren’t allowed to photo the building from the sea because the long perpendicular restaurant near the top forms a cross against the building’s tall pillar. There is much debate on the web whether or not this was done intentionally – placing a Christian symbol on an iconic building in a Muslim nation. Also apparently an urban myth is the claim that the Burj Al Arab is the only seven-star hotel in the world. Wikipedia entries (and you know everything you read on Wikipedia is true) report none of the star rating systems actually go above five stars.

You can’t go visit the Burj Al Arab unless you’re staying there or you have a reservation at one of the hotel’s restaurants. You can make a reservation at the Skyview Bar for a minimum spend of about $60 a person but Nellu and I instead tried to get as close as we could without a meal commitment.

We made it as close at the hotel next door. They were less than thrilled when I tried to inch my way closer by going through the staff area outside.

One of the things I said we’d do on this trip was sneak into a hotel pool. It would have made a good story if that pool just happened to be at the Burj Al Arab (note to self).

~ Molly

(No hairy spiders in this post.)

Industrious Ants

There are a couple of other critter characters we’d like to introduce you to that we met in South America. The first is the leafcutter ant. According to Wikipedia (so you know it’s true), leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on earth next to humans. Another article on Mother Nature Network explains how scientists are even studying these ants to find solutions to complicated people problems like finding new forms of clean energy.

I was fascinated hypnotized by the ants because they were just so darn productive. Check out this video of the industrious little suckers:



We first ran into leafcutter ants in Paraty, Brazil. Simon, the owner of our pousada, told us when a colony decides to goes after a particular tree that tree is toast. We saw them again in Rio and followed them up a street and all the way around a corner to a park where they disappeared behind a fence. I shot footage of the ants in this video both in the Amazon and at Tayrona National Park in Columbia. In Tayrona, colonies of these ants striped the jungle trail to the beach. As we hiked along, whoever was in front would yell back, “Ants!” as a warning for the other not to step on our friends.

Big-Beaked Bird with an Even Bigger Personality

We met our share of birds in South America. (Remember Tina, the macaw parrot that lived at the guesthouse in Buenos Aires?) Juanito, the toucan who lived at Otorongo Expeditions’ lodge in the Amazon, just cemented our impression that many birds have big personalities.



When I brought the camera out, Juanito was mostly subdude. But I was able to capture a few moments where he chased the staff around the property. My favorite Juanito staple though was when he would hop up the stairs to the lodge common room and stare at us through the screen and attempt to peck his way in while we were having breakfast. He had an entitled determination that didn’t quite fit his small stature but was pure comedy.

~ Molly

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