Touring the UAE

If I’ve said it once I’ve thought it a million times.  Ship time (aka “circus time”) is absolutely bizarre.  I feel like it’s been decades since I last posted, and yet it feels like only hours ago.  Time seems to fly by and yet last forever.  I get so much done and then there time to spare, yet I can never manage certain small tasks.  It’s living in an entirely different way.  So strange!

So the last week was our voyage between Dubai and Dubai, by way of Abu Dhabi, Khasab, Muscat and Doha.  Because this voyage was so short in comparison to our first (17 days, Athens to Dubai), we had much less time to put up all our shows and also meet all the guests.

Our theater, the "Parisian Lounge"

But the experience of our first cruise entirely prepared us for the next, and I think we really pulled it out for a great series of shows.  We were extremely motivated by the fact we received our first set of customer ratings, and they were the HIGHEST the ship had EVERRRRRR received for the singer/dancer entertainers!  Yes, the extras “RRR’s” were necessary to help emphasize our absolute joy at this truth.  We let energy propel us forward, and I truly feel that our second cruise had much better shows than the first, as well as more positive social interaction with the guests.  It’s really strange that in just seven days you can get to know some of this people as new friends, then you have to abruptly say goodbye and start all over again.  I met some really fantastic people on this last cruise, and they made a tremendously positive impact on me and my current outlook on performance.  So many genuine people: the New York couple (B and L) that offered to meet up when I’m back in the city; the hilarious Chicago couple (B and P) that kept us laughing with them at some hilarious moments; the lovely W who was perplexed by the color of my eyes; A and J who were celebrating J’s 80th birthday and asked the ship’s captain over dinner to give me a raise (!); and the nineteen Norwegians who kept their blonde/white heads bobbing from the front row during all our shows.  And we even have a few single cruisers who are continuing on to the Seychelles: L from Texas who has the loudest but most honest sense of fun and adventure, and D who is a lovely conversationalist with great advice on sightseeing.  All these people, and so many more that I didn’t name, opened themselves up to honest interaction with myself and the other artists, and really make this experience what it is.

The ladies of the Silver Wind - in colors for National Day in the UAE!

That’s not to say I haven’t been taking advantage of what’s to offer outside the ship.  This last voyage was a great tour around the United Arab Emirates and surrounding areas.  After we left Dubai last week, we sailed for Abu Dhabi, and I was able to actually get off the ship and enjoy some sight-seeing.  We were insanely lucky to get off (as crew members) when we did, because apparently the crew that tried to get off later in the day were unable to leave the ship!  I headed into the city with some of the other cast and a guest lecturer/artist from Jordan who knows all about Arabic art.  We arranged with a taxi driver to take us to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and upon arrival, we were blown away by the beauty of the architecture.  I truly had not expected such a grand and beautiful building!  We, along with thousands of other visiting females, were asked to put on long black gowns and head scarves, removed our shoes, and toured around the grounds of the mosque.  A tour guide asked us to join in her tour, so we haphazardly arrived in the middle of an interesting lecture on the mosque.  The art and design was so truly beautiful and inspiring.  I really loved it most because the designs that were featured were primarily floral, rather than depicting portraits or text as in so many other religious institutions.  The beauty in this place was so connected to nature – absolutely gorgeous.  After visiting the mosque, we went to the main mall in town, and well.. I do have to say that malls in the UAE rival malls of the American Southwest.  Air-conditioned shopping in desert-like conditions just makes sense, right people?

At the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Bare feet required

Our next port visit was to Khasab, Oman, which really didn’t have much to offer unless you arranged a private tour of the mountains and forts.  Instead, I headed into port with Krystle and Kathleen, convinced we could create a fun day in this small seaside village, but… nope.  There’s nothing there.  I did get some great pictures of the mountains as we left the port, however.  The views from the ship as we set sail are like nothing I’ve ever seen.  So completely breath-taking.

Looking back at Khasab, Oman

Our next port was a return to Muscat, Oman.  As I was assigned to IPM that day, I was unable to get off the ship and instead enjoyed some gym-action and sun-tanning.  I’m starting to realize that I need to treat the entire ship more like my own home.  I discovered last week that my favorite part of the ship is unquestionably the “observation lounge” – basically the very top deck on the front of the ship.  No one is ever really up there, there are windows surrounding the room, a telescope for gazing into the distance, board games for play, travel books for reading, hot coffee, and PEACE AND QUIET.  I’ve taken to sitting up there with my iPad to read books and get my caffeine on.  It’s a lovely place for thinking and relaxing.

Muscat, Oman

After leaving Muscat, we headed back through the Persian Gulf to the small country of Qatar.  We ported in the main city, Doha, but didn’t leave the ship as it would have cost each of us $44 to pay our Visa.  No thanks, Qatar.  I actually was very intriqued by the beautiful city skyline and the fact it is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, but I simply couldn’t part with my $44, especially on a Friday afternoon (holy day and everything is closed).  But I enjoyed Qatar from the deck of the ship, practiced guitar into the sunset, and snapped some nice pictures for all you lovely folks.

Doha, Qatar
Sunset from back deck on the ship, looking out at Doha

Leaving Qatar, we sailed back to beautiful Dubai and arrived early Saturday morning.  After closing a very successful run of shows on Friday night, I was ready for an adventure on foot!  Peter, Kathleen and I shared a cab with our new friends from NYC (B and L) and went to the Dubai Mall.  I managed to not spend much money at all, just picking up a few essentials.  From there, we visited the Madinat Jumeirah (upon recommendation from the MAC make-up store in the Dubai Mall) and had some lunch at Trader Vic’s.  Kathleen then left to visit the beach and Peter and I went to the Mall of Emirates to go skiing and snowboarding at Ski Dubai.  That’s right.  Skiing.  In a mall.

This deserves its own paragraph actually.  So here’s how Ski Dubai works.  You give them $50.  They give you snowpants, a jacket, ski boots (or snowboard), skis and poles.  And a pass that’s good for two hours on the lift.  The lift is unbelievably slow and takes you to the top of the INDOOR ski run.  It took me a few runs to get back into the hang of skiing, but by the third or fourth time I was totally enjoying it!  By the fifth or sixth time, Peter and I were over it and stopped.  Something about sitting on the lift for five minutes without gloves and then zooming down a hill in about 20 seconds that just doesn’t make much sense.

After we warmed up, we got our real cardio in by taking advantage of all the mall had to offer!  I officially found my new favorite clothing store, a Turkish place called Koton.  Unfortunately, there aren’t too many world locations, so I don’t get to go there again until we are in Istanbul next spring.  By then I’ll actually have money to spend and might even just buy a new wardrobe to ship back to NYC.  This place was seriously amazing.  The people in New York would go ape-shit crazy over these clothes.  But all good things (or shopping trips) must come to an end, and so Peter and I bid adieu to our lovely mall (did I mention that it had a SHAKE SHACK?) and hired a taxi to take us to the Emirates Tower for a final cocktail at a place called Vu.  It was a great day, and it was lovely to make the most of our free time and see the sights.  Who knows who often we will have the luxury of an entire day off?

Shake Shack Dubai!

This morning, I was up early for a new embarkation day.  200+ people have now boarded the ship and are anxiously awaiting our departure toward Fujairah, UAE.  Our final port on this voyage is Mahe, Seychelles.  Check out the itinerary:

Dec 05   Fujairah, UAE
Dec 06   Muscat, Oman
Dec 07   Day at Sea
Dec 08   Day at Sea
Dec 09   Mumbai, India
Dec 10   Day at Sea
Dec 11   Cochin, India
Dec 12   Day at Sea
Dec 13   Colombo, Sri Lanka
Dec 14   Day at Sea
Dec 15   Male, Maldives
Dec 16   Day at Sea
Dec 17   Day at Sea
Dec 18   Curieuse, Seychelles
Dec 19   Curieuse, Seychelles
La Digue, Seychelles
Praslin, Seychelles
Dec 20   Praslin, Seychelles
Mahe, Seychelles
Dec 21   Mahe, Seychelles

I’m absolutely looking forward to our visit in the Seychelles.  I think right now the biggest thing on my mind is hitting the gym so I look good on the beach!  Okay, off now to head back towards the ship for our safety drill and welcome to the new guests.

It starts all over again.

C’est la vie of Life at Sea

*I wrote this yesterday evening and am just getting a chance to post it.  We just pulled into port at Dubai and have a HUGE day ahead of us.  Right now I’m sitting in the beautiful Dubai Terminal enjoying FREE WiFi for the first time!*

Just sitting here in our theater on board, known as “The Parisian Lounge.”  The last two weeks have been a whirlwind, to put it mildly.  The last time I posted, I think we had just left Jordan and put up the Motown show. The Motown show was an excellent start to the voyage and immediately pulled the guests to really love us and want to know us.  After Aqaba, we sailed to Safaga, Egypt for an overnight.  I didn’t have the time to get off the ship on one day and the second day I was assigned IPM (In-Port Manning).  Didn’t miss very much in not visiting Safaga, as it was pretty much a shithole, according to everyone that got off the ship.  Even from the window of the ship, you could see slums and sketchy-looking situations. I was reluctant to visit Safaga with all the social turmoil that had been shrouding Egypt, and our timing in leaving the country couldn’t have been more perfect.  The riots broke out the evening that was sailed off from Safaga.

Once we were at sea, we prepared for the transit through more pirate-infested waters.  The Captain had, earlier in the week, given presentations to the guests and the crew regarding our procedures through this transit of the Gulf of Aden.  Of course, we are far less likely to be overtaken by pirates than your typical cargo ship (slower and lower), so there’s little to be worried about.  But at the point in the lecture when a slide of four guys in a motorboat came up and the Captain said, “These are pirates,” and pointed…. Well, I had a really hard time not laughing.  What this meant for our transit was basically that we were sailing at a higher speed and had to keep lights off on the top deck of the ship, as well as all windows blacked out.  So our little tiny porthole in our room has been closed for over a week! I’m still wondering when we will be able to open it again, because the lack of natural light is starting to make me a little crazy.

Jeff and I as pirates!

One upside of this whole pirate time was that I participated in the most epic pirate themed crew party.  Apparently, one of the previous charters had left about 100 pirate costumes on the ship, so it meant that a good amount of the crew was able to dress up in silly and costumes and make the most of it.  Around the time of all this initially beginning, we opened our opera show, “High C’s,” to a great response.  I felt really happy with it, and even though I was vocally exhausted, I wasn’t too angry about my performance of my solo aria.  As anyone who knows me already knows, I am EXTREMELY self-critical, so this was great for me!  Everyone looked gorgeous in couture gowns and tuxedos, so we made a fine-looking group on formal night that evening.  Have I talked about formal nights much?  I’m so glad I brought so many formal gowns!  I believe we had about four formal nights in this voyage, which means that if we’re in guest areas after 6pm, we have to be dressed to the occasion.

The cast and creative team after "High C's"

This made me think of that line from 30 Rock when Jack says, in response to his wearing a tuxedo, “It’s after six.  What am I, a farmer?”  I love getting all dressed up, and the manager at our onboard jewelry store has taken to loaning the ladies of the cast some very beautiful, and very expensive, pieces for our evening wear.  Regardless of the dress code, we are pretty much wearing dresses every night; it’s just a matter of whether it’s a more casual cocktail dress or a floor-length gown. I’ll try to start taking more pictures of us in our evening wear, because everyone looks stunning.

Right after the opera show, Peter and I did a show together in the upstairs lounge.  We were really proud to put it up in our first week onboard, and to be the first individuals of the whole group of singers onboard all the ships to do this show (we were the third of four ships to embark).  We played together with the musicians onboard, known as the “Silver Wind Quartet.”  It’s been great getting to know this fun group of musicians, all from the Philippines, all with great personalities and all of them know tons of music!  I sang “The Girl from Ipanema,” “New York, New York,” “You’re So Vain,” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  Peter sang four songs as well, and we both related some of our personal stories and life in New York to the songs we presented.  Despite the fact that this was our last overnight in port in Safaga, the show was really well attended, and I think the guests really enjoyed to opportunity to get to know us more intimately.

So the very next morning we set off (as I mentioned above) to sail through pirate waters and experience an excruciating FIVE days at sea.  We said goodbye to Soozi and Damon from our creative team and our music director Brian stayed on board.  Life while at sea for an extended period of time, while also having to have windows blacked out, is a bit of a challenge.  I quickly became anxious for more light, for space to move, for… LAND.  One thing that has kept us sane has been watching sunsets and the stars at night.

Watching the sunset with The Green Flash Club

A few of us even decided to form a little group called “The Green Flash Club,” hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive “green flash” that supposedly occurs at the last moment of a sunset.  But we were all preoccupied with lots of work to do, preparing for our Billy Joel songbook show, our ABBA show and our deck show, “A Little Night Music.”  So leaving the ship, even if we were porting everyday would have been an unlikely option.  This was also the time that we started doing more ‘activities’ or ‘duties,’ though I really hate calling them the latter.  Our activities range from golf putting, to Sudoku challenge, to teatime, to… TRIVIA!  I was randomly placed on trivia several times this week, so the regular trivia participants got to really know me and I even turned it into a joke during one of our shows.  I think the most coveted activity is teatime, because you get to socialize with the guests and enjoy tea and scones.  I haven’t had that one yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  It’s funny, because I feel like my time working at the non-profit really helped me to be great at this current job.  Weirdly, the social aspect of what we do is extremely important, because the guests are more likely to come to our shows after they’ve had a chance to get to know us, and they obviously appreciate them more when they know about us as individuals.  I have had a wonderful time getting to know a lot of the guests on this voyage, and it’s a little sad to think they’ll all be leaving tomorrow morning and I’ll have to get to know an entirely new group.  C’est la vie of life at sea.  Oh, that’s great.  That will be the title of this post.

So the next show to open was our Billy Joel songbook show, which went superbly!  We opened with an a cappella piece that I picked out: “And So It Goes” then each of us sang solos with the band, followed by one more a cappella piece: “The Longest Time.”  It was my goal to do these two group numbers, and I was so pleased with how they sounded and how the audience received them.  Go team Wind!  The solo that I sang was (obviously) “New York State of Mind,” a song I didn’t really know that well before this gig, but now it’s truly one of my favorites. Our ABBA show opened just afterward, and was a huge hit.  We managed to pull together a special preview performance of the show for the crew – they LOVED it!  I felt the show was an amazing success, and I can’t wait to do it again.  Those costumes are simply ridiculous.

The Cast after "ABBAlicious" with our Stage Manager, Henry

And the last show we opened was last night on the pool deck for the BBQ, a show we called “A Little Night Music.”  The original concept of the show was to do more pop music in costumes, but we changed things up and I think the show was a lot of fun.  I sang “Fever” and also “Keep Me Hangin’ On” with Krystle.  After all the other solos, the group finished out by singing “Moondance” and then danced with the guests until the Staff Captain came up to tell us to turn off the music and the lights!  I was so pleased with the entire run of our very first voyage.  I feel like we really hit it out of the park and this is the start of a great run for us.

But I can’t forget mentioning how amazing our Thanksgiving was!  The entire day was special.  The first thing was a special cocktail party hosted by the Captain and Hotel Director where we and the other Americans gathered together in the Observation Lounge for champagne and canapés.  We went around the entire room and everyone said what they were thankful for.  It was really special to have that unique moment together.  That evening, we helped to host the Captain’s goodbye cocktail party for all the guests (our final formal night).  I was thrilled to dress up in one of the dresses I got from my Oma.  (Though I made a slight modification to it – hope that’s okay!)  I actually got a lot of compliments from the guests.  One lady was really sweet, she said, “Oh Ashley, you always look so cute in your vintage dresses.  But I’m always sporting my vintage face!”  The people here are genuine by the end of this voyage, I do feel a special bond with a lot of them.  After the cocktail party, we met at the main restaurant on board for a very special Thanksgiving dinner with the cast and Brian.  It was fantastic!  And I never thought I’d be so lucky to eat turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, brussels sprouts and pumpkin cheesecake while we were on our fifth day at sea, cruising through the Gulf of Aden.  And after dinner I was able to FINALLY connect with home and chat via Skype with the family.  That was a huge gift to me, something I was truly thankful for.  But what really made the holiday special was the party afterward in the crew bar.  The American flag cake that had been on display in the restaurant was being enjoyed by the crew, it was a free-for-all make your own drinks bar, and the kitchen staff was challenging the cast to some good ol’ karaoke competition.  Honestly, I thought the kitchen staff was better!  I heard a rendition of “Creep” that blew my mind, from Reeno, a Filipino cook.  Yes, it was a little difficult to understand his diction, but he sang the shit out of that song, hit all the high notes, and gave me chills.

So now we’re sailing away from Fujairah, UAE.  I managed to get off the ship yesterday morning when we finally ported in Muscat, Oman after our five sea days.  We said goodbye to Brian who was flying to Hong Kong to meet one of our other casts, then Peter and I headed out to explore the city and visit the Souq (market).

Muscat, Oman

Because Friday was a holy day, nothing was open until 4pm, so we walked around the perimeter of the city, along the coast, all the way to the Sultan’s Palace.  From there we took a cab back to the Souq, where hundreds of vendors called and beckoned for our business.  I did end up buying this funny little antique padlock shaped like a camel.  Very weird, very much my style, and very cheap.  Last night we headed from port en route to the UAE, and we ported this morning in Fujairah.  If you’re ever thinking of visiting Fujairah, just go to a Wal-mart instead.  Because all that’s there, seriously, is the Lulu Shopping Center… which is basically a Wal-mart.  I did get off, bought a toothbrush and a thumb drive. I know, riveting!  Tonight will hopefully be restful as tomorrow we port in Dubai and have an extremely long day of debarkation and embarkation for all the old and new guests.  We will be working all day long, and the very next day begins our run of all the shows all over again. This next voyage is only seven days long, so we are packing a lot of more into less time.  Our schedule of ports is the following:

Sunday, November 27th       Dubai, UAE
Monday, November 28th      Abu Dhabi, UAE
Tuesday, November 29th      Khasab, Oman
Wednesday, November 30th Muscat, Oman
Thursday, December 1st       Day at Sea
Friday, December 2nd            Doha, Qatar
Saturday, December 3rd       Dubai, UAE
Sunday, December 4th          Dubai, UAE

So even though we are working all day tomorrow, I’m hoping we can take advantage of our overnight in Dubai on the 3rd to really enjoy what the city has to offer!

Yes, this life is overwhelming, exhausting, unbelievable, sometimes very lonely and yet you’re never alone.  But it’s interesting, exciting, filled with adventure – and that’s what I’m thankful for at this point.  I never dreamed I would be sitting in the window watching a beautiful sunset at sea on the Gulf of Oman.  I miss my family and friends, but what an opportunity I have been blessed with!  So I’m signing off for now.  Miss you all very much.