UAE’s best kept secrets (from me) revealed…

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1) Crossing through the Sharjah boarder costs only 10 OMR as opposed to the 20 OMR that the Dubai boarder charges. But, it’s not worth it because the total journey then takes close to 6 hours and your butt gets numb and your eyes begin to play tricks on you (especially if you drive after work at night).
2) Pizza can be delivered to your place at 1am and it will actually be hot and taste good! No one will get your order wrong, the delivery dude will not be rude to you and they will include all the toppings and not just those that they randomly selected from the counter.
3) UAE has beautiful people. In hot pants, with monkeys, with baby strollers, on rollerblades, with burgers, in abayas, with Chanel bags, with Chihuahuas or in kinky red shorts. UAE people are gorgeous. A colleague recently referred to it as “a candy store” and yes I know this is very sexist, but it is such a perfect description!
4) Crowds of people are not out there to get me. On the third day I was finally slipping into a mild acceptance of the fact that not everyone is a sexual predator/rapist/stalker (I get that feeling a lot in Oman). Crowds are good. Crowds are fun. Crowds don’t give a crap if you don’t have make up on, if you are standing under the rain and enjoying it, if your husband is feeding you sushi in the middle of the street or if you yell “OMG PEOPLE!” and point at the crowd. Crowd’s don’t give a flying…in the UAE you are average. You are part of the crown and no longer a piece of hot *** that the freaks will drool over.
5) Food tastes insatiably good on the other side of the boarder. I feel like I was under anesthesia up until I arrived to Dubai and had their pizza, burgers, tacos, sushi, noodle soup, Chinese food (Yes, we ate A LOT in Dubai). I could not get enough of the flavors, the variety, the spices and the availability of the palette. I discovered taste buds I never knew I had or perhaps they were dormant up until they were roused by 800 Pizza (cheese, ham, turkey bacon and meat on top of meat).
6) It is possible to spend 9 hours in a mall and you still wouldn’t see it all. Although I am not in particular a shopaholic I felt obliged to visit the BIGGEST MALL IN THE WORLD. It just also happens to have the biggest indoor waterfall and a fantastic aquarium complete with sting rays and sharks. Oh the thrill. Turns out that meeting a 80kg shark nose to nose is not as scary as National Geographic makes it seem.
7) Taxi drivers are not maniacs and can actually be responsible on the road. They will also find your building in the nick of time and use A METER to charge your journey. Seriously! It’s magical. How many of us got into a taxi in Oman having negotiated a price only to get out and pay double because the driver “ bad English no understand two rial”.
8) Their road radars are meanies. It’s not like Oman when you drive on the highway at 140 and think “is this thing on?” oh no. Their super radars are trained to hit your windshield like lightning as soon as you crawl over the 80 m/h limit on the fly over. 😦
9) People go for walks. With their dogs. With their monkeys (I swear!). With their girlfriends. With babies. People just stroll around like no man’s business. I have blisters from all the walking. I hated walking with a passion by Saturday. No gym work out could ever measure up to the calories we burned by walking from our parked car to what seemed like another freaking country.
10) The UAE is going through a rapid baby boom. Or maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me. There are babies of every age, shape and size on every corner of every street and in every shop of every mall in Dubai. There are even twins. I counted 5 sets of twins in the Emirates mall. Between 11 and 5 pm we encountered particularly cute well behaved cherubs that make me have butterflies in my tummy, but towards the evening every toddler we went past was screaming and kicking so the butterflies went away again. Are we missing a trend here in Oman?
I think we are missing about 100 trends here in Oman…and whilst I enjoy our blissful simple existence here, I cannot help but feel bummed to be back 😦
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Solving life’s mysteries one Snake Gorge at a time

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Rocks so hot they burn your hands
Water so cold it makes your teeth chatter
Scenery so epic it takes your breath away

The Snake Gorge in Wadi Bani Awf – ideal for professional rock climbers, tough men and life-long tomboys, adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies. That doesn’t sound like you? It doesn’t sound like me either. Yet, I spent the entire Friday climbing/walking/crawling over the rocks at The Snake Gorge wondering if it was named so after the giant anacondas that dwelled in the caves. (Ok, so there are no anacondas and there are no caves).
The extravagant trip began at Tourist Village in Rustaq, a jewel we have discovered during one of our previous road trips. The campsite is located about 2 hours away from Muscat, en route to Rustaq and is impossible to miss thanks to a very worn-looking signboard alongside the main road. This lush, green resort comprises of a few huts, a swimming pool and a dining area that’s fantastic for a barbeque dinner. The rates are accessible at 25OMR per hut which is based on double occupancy. The owner of “the second home” Mr. Mohammed is a jolly old man who is pleased with his property and is very welcoming of visitors. The stay was very civilized; we had a table to eat at, a pool to swim in and comfortable beds to rest. Best not to forget that we were in the middle absolutely nowhere so yes there were mosquitoes, frogs, bugs and the whole whoo-ha. I was constantly picking leafs out of my wine and hair and ducking from wasps.
I made sure everyone came well prepared (you know how I love lists!) and for the rest of the evening I was referred to as “The Mom” because I just seemed to have the answers to everyone’s problems: nail files, salt, band aids, Strepsils, nasal spray…well you get the drift. The dinner the guys grilled up was delicious complete with snacks and a ridiculous amount of alcohol. We then spend the rest of the afternoon eating, swimming and chatting until the early hours of the morning.
If you consider a weekend getaway into the interiors, I strongly advise you to check this place out. It even comes with its own guard dog- Max 🙂

Do: bring your own music, mosquito repellent, food and drinks
Don’t: assume you are in a hotel, pick up your own litter and make your own bed!
The next morning we rose early to the annoying tweeting, no not of a bird- of my best friend’s boyfriend. You see…he is a morning person. But don’t worry he already regrets it. By 8 am he had already cleaned up the campsite, packed all our gear and would have even made the beds if we weren’t sleeping in them. Fighting epic hangovers, we scattered around organizing breakfast, hunted for coffee and finally left for Wadi Bani Awf.

To reach Snake Gorge all you have to do is turn right when leaving the Tourist Camp and keep going straight until you pretty much come to holt because there are two gigantic mountains in front of you. Ok, so I will try to get better directions…but for now, this is all I have 🙂

Luckily no one told me that the Snake Gorge Trek is about 2 hours long- one way!!! Knowing me, I would have probably not embarked on this treacherous journey if I knew that I had to climb over rocks as big as a Pathfinder. I am glad that we went though, because I have not seen scenery this beautiful anywhere else in Oman. The entire time we made our way in between two steep mountains, amidst fallen rocks and mossy creeks. We would occasionally stop for everyone to catch up, wash our faces in the running rivers as other trekkers walked past us.
I was very eager to find out what mysteries the end of the route held and I was also determined to push myself just a little more each time. Alex kept on telling me that he is very proud of me for walking all the way up, something I have always chickened out of previously! This trek is virtually impossible to do on your own, the entire time I was relying on helping hands to support me up a steep rock or secure me when I was jumping over a cavern. I must admit I was looking out for snakes the entire time but all I found was beetles, frogs, tadpoles and dragonflies (thankfully!).

As pictures are worth a thousand words, I will let you enjoy the rest of the Snake Gorge through these:

Lo and behold at the end of the Snake Gorge there is a pool of freezing cold water that is both murky and inviting. It is a deep pool, one you can even dive into so don’t assume you can walk through.
If you want to embark on this route:
Do: wear comfortable sandals/sneakers, bring your swim suite and sun screen, bring a camera and plenty of drinking water.
Don’t: bring a heavy bag, leave litter behind
Happy trekking!!!

Picture this…

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The Nikon has been lying on the dresser for close to two weeks now, gathering dust and snickering. “Pick me up and go…just go, I know you want to”. Its heavy presence nudged at my subconscious every single time I passed it by. Eventually I caved in hoping that it will help to fill the dark hollows. Somewhere deep down something was nudging and scratching with sharp little claws, insisting to be let out. Was that a muse? Have the events of this preposterous month left me drained and in dire need of inspiration? Of course they have and I am a hopeless inspiration junky.
An SOS message went out to the soul sister urging to organize a photo session. “You will lose me to the corporate world FOR-EVA” I said. I needed an outlet. Save me.
She has done so much more than simply let me take yet another profile picture for her. “We are going on a photography trip on Friday, come with us” she cheerfully exclaimed. Sometimes I just have to accept that she knows what is best for me. That is how we ended up in Rustaq, amidst the crowded touristic hot-spots and the peaceful silence the landmarks of that magnitude always seem to carry. I was feeding off all the details; the broken vases, the untamed flowers and even the cracks in the walls. A typical Omani fort, so alike the many others I have already seen, saved me that day.
I don’t think of myself as a photographer and I wouldn’t say I am particularly good at it. But I know that when I take those pictures I ease up. With every click of the camera and every captured image- I feel lighter. It feels like I was holding my breath for a while and I can finally breathe out. Breath. So what if we drove for 2 hours to take pictures of yet another fort. And it doesn’t matter that I almost slipped on a river bank and almost fell head first on a concrete corner. Please also disregard the weight of the camera and the hot day. The outcome is tremendously rewarding.

I will let you be the judge:

Corruption, demolition and prostitution (or how I spent the winter holidays).

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I tried to write this post a few days back, but the words kept on appearing melancholy and somewhat disturbing. So I gave myself a little more time to attain a sense of cheerfulness in order to look back at what’s happened with a sense of humor.

I recently spent 16 long, cold days in Uzbekistan. This unplanned visit was largely to fault on my expiring exit visa which is compulsory for the passport to be a valid travelling document. Us, citizens of this wonderful country have the honor of coming back home-regardless of where on the planet we are, once every two years to obtain this document.
Although I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to see my family and friends, I cannot help feeling cheated and abused by “the system”.  To cut a long story short, the paranoia that has spread deep into the roots of “the system” has caused them to take longer to process the documents and interrogate me extensively. To make matters worse, I was forced to write an explanatory letter along the lines of “I promise not to engage in acts of prostitution outside of Uzbekistan…” at which I had to giggle right into the fierce face of the highly authoritative gentleman who at that moment was deciding my fate. I mean, seriously- so as long as I do it in my native land- everyone is happy?

To bring some justice to the matter, I must say that the girls of the nation have immensely screwed up by actively practicing the oldest profession on earth in the UAE. The rest of us common folk, especially females between 16-40 years, now have to be reduced to ridicule by the officials when acquiring an exit visa. Kudos to “the system” for trying to save what little untainted reputation the country but measures taken appear a little extreme and frankly terrifying.

Never before had I felt so trapped and claustrophobic in Tashkent. Knowing that you do not have your documents and cannot travel at your own free will is a nerve wrecking experience. We must have grown accustomed to the freedom and security that living in the Sultanate provides- hey how about going to Qatar this weekend? I know a fantastic Sheesha place in Doha that we could check out.

Three days before I flew back it snowed. Waking up in the morning blinded by the immense white cover of everything in the streets is certainly reviving. I watched carefree children squealing with delight as they drag sledges behind into the blizzard. I put on two jumpers and a hooded winter jacket and went outside to snap away shots of fluffy snowflakes dancing in the air. Amidst the winter wonderland and the warmth of a house I grew up in- for the first time ever Uzbekistan didn’t feel like home.

I realized that I am no longer attached to anything materialistic in Uzbekistan- not the food that I used to love, not the city or the places I longed to visit. If I could I would tear away a handful of people and move them closer to me- ultimately they are the only reason I would ever come back there.

The entire vacation felt like a much needed visit to the dentist. You come in knowing what painful endeavors lay ahead. Occupying the most comfortable seat in the waiting room, you begin flipping through dentistry magazines and occasionally glance at Teletubbies on the TV. You check your watch a few dozen times, make frequent trips to the bathroom and come back to the magazine. Fully aware of the cold sweat breaking out on your forehead you bravely venture towards the excruciating torture once your name is called out, eager to get it over and done with.

-Yup, that’s exactly what my winter holidays felt like.

This time…everything in moderation

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In exactly 6 days time, I will be lying belly up on my grandmother’s sofa, indulging in pleasant nonsense of yet another novel and humming “ I am wicked and I am lazy”. That’s right folks. I am headed home.  This isn’t however a vacation that has been carefully planned and budgeted for. (That doesn’t sound like me, does it?). About three weeks ago, it dawned on me that my external visa is expiring in January, and I urgently need to head back to Uzbekistan to have it renewed. Lo and behold, the irrational, inconvenient to say the least, bureaucratically bound laws of Uzbekistan. We, citizens of this humorous land must acquire permission to LEAVE the country. It’s a little nuisance of a sticker that is valid for two years and must get renewed consequently after. Otherwise as it says in big fat bold English (!!!) letters “the passport is not valid for visiting any country of the word”.  I might also run into trouble when trying to enter the country with an expired external visa- hence it is just less hassle to go and sort it out immediately.
At first I did not love the thought of leaving for 10 days- it felt like I was being snatched from normality and thrown headfirst into a pile of icy cold surrealism. The idea has however grown on me and I am welcoming the opportunity to go back home and see the family yet again, this time under calmer circumstances. When we last visited in August 2010, the mere 16 days have turned into a remake of Lemony Snicket’s : A Series of Unfortunate Events.  It was the vacation that will forever be remembered as “ A family reunion, a wedding and a funeral” . This time around I would be most grateful for a dull, uninspiring, conservative visit back home. Nothing has to happen for all I care- I just want to be there. I look forward to going for long walks, visiting my university, having heartwarming conversations with my grandmother, seeing my closest friends and godson and indulging in national cuisine. As they say a traveler seeks adventures and welcomes thrills, a tourist merely goes sightseeing. Well, this time I am the tourist.
As long as I survive the flight back all else is expected to go smoothly. I tend to lose my patience with the local Uzbek airlines and I insist that if any of you ever travel to Uzbekistan- fly via Turkish airlines. That way you will not gain a negative impression of the country- before you even land. However, if arrogant stewardesses, questionable food and rattling planes are your piece of pie you are welcome onboard of Uzbekistan Airlines! (They should hire me as Marketing Director, don’t you reckon?)
Air stewardess: “Lunch?”

Husband: “Yes please, what are my choices?”

Air stewardess: “Well, we have chicken…and…chicken”


Here I must however mention that if it wasn’t for the convenience and the helpful lady working in the representative office in Dubai- I would be walking to Uzbekistan next week! An atrocious travel expectation aside all else looks promising in Cotton Land.

I have recruited an army of thermal clothing, purchased kick ass boots and a majestic amount of Omani dates to take back home. I plan to sleep, read, eat and do absolutely nothing else. At least, that is the initial plan…watch this space…

Day 5 pt 1. The one with all the DE-NI-AL

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On the 18th of November, Yulya’s day 4 in Oman she was eager to go to Zouk, unfortunately the rest of the country did not agree with her wish and protested with a 15 km long traffic jam in the Shatti area.  One thing was clear, disappointed at not getting the chance to try the infamous “Flaming Lamborghini” in Zouk, Yulya is determined to come back and make up for it.  We remained at Park Inn rooftop for rest of the evening, making our way home close to 1 a.m. We had an early night for a change, or maybe we didn’t…I forget. I vaguely remember another house party that lasted till 4 am, but maybe I had imagined that due to my selective amnesia caused by ABSOLUTELY NO SLEEP.
The following morning, on Yulya’s last day in Oman, we had a dolphin watching trip planned. We were feeling strangely energized, or maybe that was the final kick of adrenalin settling in because we knew we only have 10 hours left. We headed to Marina Bandar Al Rowdha, picking my 7 year old brother on the way, as well as a few other people. It so happened that during the National Day holidays, someone was always entertaining a relative or a friend. My Cynthia was escorting her cousin from Lebanon, a friend of mine had her mom come over for a visit, and I had the hot-crazy-mess that also goes by the name of Yulya in these posts. Hence, we all met on the boat. A man by the name of Ameen, endured my calls during the week “we need to add one more person, no sorry 3 more people, wait do you have space for 5?.  He was able to get us all on board at a fantastic rate! All 8 of us (ratio of 5:3, Russian and Lebanese respectively) completely took over the spotlight on the yacht, whist calmer and better mannered tourists scattered in far away corners. From past experiences I expected to be violently sea sick on the boat, but I think a hangover and exhaustion was enough for my body to handle, and it decided not to include sea sickness on to the menu that morning.
I struggle to enjoy my time when I have a hyper, cheeky, fearless 7 year old running around the boat, leaning over the bars to “catch the waves”. I was glad when the boat came to a halt once the dolphins were spotted. We were in luck because according to the captain no dolphins were seen in the last 4 days, a fable used to insure the company against outraged tourists if the dolphins indeed decide to detour and not show face- in my opinion. Cruising around for half an hour along with other boats, we saw a team of dolphins race past our boat, playfully fueling our interest until they disappeared under the murky waters. This was our cue to head to a tranquil bay for an hour of snorkeling.
This was Yulya’s first time putting on a snorkeling mask and setting out to explore. I had both her and the 7 year old Nemo to look after, one minute he is there, the next he is gone. Being a fearless daredevil my brother was in the water within minutes, exploring the coral reef and pointing out fish as big as himself to other participants. Half heartedly jumping into the deep blue, I was surprised to find it warmer than I feared it would be, the water was turquoise and the marine life abundant right under my feet. However this was the first time we snorkeled at that specific location, and being quite careless I assumed the sea is a lot deeper than it actually was. Let’s just say that flippers are always a good idea when snorkeling. A few bumps and scrapes later, defeated I stumbled back on board leaving a blood trail all the way to the First Aid Box, I guess Yulya must have followed that trail because she was right behind me a few minutes later in queue for her share of iodine and a bandage.
Yulya was unusually quite during the trip, and no one from the entire party dared to mention her flight that was only 5 hours away. We were deep in denial about her having to go to Kuwait, because for the 4 days that she was in Oman every minute of it felt like it was exactly where she belonged. The girl was thrilled that she could wear knee-long shorts in public, do recreational activities without being stared at and just enjoy herself amongst close friends. If my Happy Place narrows down to Beach A in Sur, Yulya’s must extend to the entire Oman from the peak of Jabal Shams to the depths of the Gulf.

Day 4 pt. 2 The one with My Happy Place

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It seemed that every car in Sur was decorated in red, green and white- the colors of the national flag. Some cars had stripes going across, some had hundreds of stars plastered all over and others had portraits of His Majesty covering the entire back screen. Life in Sur was busy- people were out on the streets- a sight you don’t come across often in Muscat. We could not go faster than 40 km/h for fear of yet another child zooming across the road fearlessly on his bike. Closer to Ras Al Hadd, the little villas are replaced by scenes of a bay harboring traditional wooden Dows. Ras Al Hadd is the exact spot where the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman meet. The sea there is very rough, cold and somewhat brutal- nevertheless it is the deepest blue you will ever see. It is also home to four species of nesting sea turtles; the endangered greed, loggerhead and the Olive Ridley turtle as well as the Hawksbill variety. Eager to share with Yulya the breathtaking experience of watching sea turtles nest and their youngsters crawl to the sea, I planned this day well in advance. A month before she arrived I called Ras Al Jinx resort (which provides guided tours at night), but they were already full, my second option was Ras Al Hadd, where I have previously stayed in April. Booking the last two double rooms at the resort, I had then called up every week or so to make sure they were still holding them for me. I have a prejudice distrust when it comes to hotels in the interiors, it is better to be safe than sorry. I also booked us for a tour in Ras Al Jinx, which is the exact location where the sea turtles come to nest. 
Just before checking into the hotel, we could not resist stopping for a few shots, these were taken by Yulya:

Ras Al Hadd is a great 3 star property. It is value for money. When you enter the lobby they let you hold fragile little sea turtles in the palm of your hand. They are slimy, green and unbearably cute. The rooms are relatively fresh, always clean and provide the basic comforts. They are also all sea view, can you resist?

 By the time we checked in we were starving, and quickly organized a spontaneous supper of potatoes, grilled chicken, fresh salad and sandwiches. Feeling refreshed and to Yulyas screams of “Hurry we are going to miss sunset!!!” we rushed out to the beach, which is a mere 10 minutes walk from the hotel. The moon was already up, and the sun was about to set- a genuine setting for an aspiring photographer. There were many visitors to the beach that eveing, mostly families with children who got too close to the 1 m high waves and had to be dragged back by their parents. With an attempt to shoot an oversized crab, I climbed too far up a rock and got splashed from head to toe by a wave that hit the cliff violentry. The water was freezing cold. We hastily made our way back to the hotel, after calling Ras Al Jinx about 20 times to find out when our tour is. That would probably be my only peeve during the entire trip-Ras Al Jinx is impossible to reach by the phone. It is in my opinion easier to drive the 400 km there and back- more chance of getting your questions answered. As we later found out, tours take place at 9 pm and then again at 3 am. Anxiously driving along the 9 km winding road to Ras Al Jinx, I could not supress the same panic I faced in April. There are absolutely no lights on that road. It is a 15 minute drive into pitch darkness, with the occasional ‘Beware of Camels’ signs, and foxes running across the road. As per the statistics, over 2,000 tourists flock to the area every month would it hurt them to make the roads a little safer?

Ras Al Jinx is a modern turtle conservation center. I have nothing but praise for their facilities and employees. The groups and tour guides are very organized, they dealt calmly and professionally with the 100 people that gathered in their hall that evening. People from all corners of the world pateienly waited for the tours to start and were divided into 5 separate groups to make their trip a little more enjoyable.
The reason Sur is my Happy Place lies solemnly in Ras Al Jinx Beach A. The 15 minute walk, under the full moon, on the cool sand is equivalent to a jar of Nutella Choccolate or 100 hours of Yoga- if that is how your get your kick. Every whisper echoes off the surrounding rugged mountains, and you cant help but settle down and you can literally feel your thoughts calming. See, I suffer from what Elizabeth Gilbert calls ‘monkey mind’ -the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” Hence when I manage to find a cure, to just for a minute or two get the monkeys to settle down and reflect- I am at my best. Sur is the only place that seems to do it for me, away from the noise, away from the errands- it is just me, the beach and the rolling waves. Never mind that there are 100 other people there- I don’t feel them.
Once the tour guide comes to a sudden halt, he looks into the distance, flashing his infrared flashlight at his colleague further ahead. He waves him over and we quietly follow. A short wait later, he points out a black dot on the white sand. Some 50 meters ahead, a green sea turtle has emerged to nest- she is now slowly but surely making her way across the beach. The guide gestures for us to sit down, we circle him and watch as he draws on the sand a demonstration of how the turtles choose their nests. I faintly remember that it has something to do with the temperature and the humidity of the sand. He also says that over 30,000 turtles nest on this exact beach every year. However, only 1 or 2 out of thousand baby turtles ever make it to adulthood. At any given time, the mother turtle disposes of 200 eggs, and buries them a meter deep into the ground, digging another “fake nest” nearby to throw off the predators. It is enticing, the details and the processes that nature has so carefully arranged. No matter how saddened we are by the enormous fatalities amongst the sea turtles, the guide shakes his head and says “it is a circle. We must not intrude”. He is hopeful to show us baby turtles that night, he takes a few steps into the distance and gestures for us to follow. Suddenly sitting down, he begins to carefully clear the sand away with his hand. Me and Yulya have front row seats. Sitting on our knees on the cold sand, we lean over right into the hole is clearing. I cannot believe my eyes when I see movement under the surface of the sand. A little head emerges, then the front flippers push the body to the surface. A second baby turle follows right after. “Experience” is what our guide refers to when asked how he found the nest to precisely. Somewhere in the crowd, people begin fidgeting. The guide goes over to them to make sense of the excitement. I cautiously stand over the two baby turtles that are still crawling out of their nest, I have an intense urge to pick them up and carry them to the sea but a rude tourist hisses at me when I stretch my arms to them. By the time I pull myself away from the two helpless wonders, everyone is already “ouuing” and ” awwing” over the sight of hundrets of baby turtles and their dark silhouettes crawling towards the flashlight of the guide. He walks ahead, leaning the source of light on a rock, and we witness an incredible spectacle- little flippers working hard to make their way to the flashlight. They are silly like that. We are then forced to tear ourselves away from them and let them be. They will now use only their primary instincts to reach water, and not all of them will even get that far. Two hours later, it is already 11:30 pm and the guide urges us to head back, inspired and bewildered we make our way back to the hotel…my happy place has not failed me.

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