As summer approaches, I always wonder how can I run two businesses while running away. Travel research shows that we Americans are the most likely to lose vacation days. The best solution I see is to combine business with pleasure with every trip abroad.
After signing up for a conference in Dubai, I was intrigued by the Middle East today while wanting to learn more about its ancient cultures. After some research, I found a flight to Dubai via Jordan with a layover of a few days.
Leaving nothing to chance, I arranged for an airport pickup and booked a conveniently located 5 star hotel in an upscale area of Amman with several dining options nearby and in the hotel. Having studied Arabic, I had the pleasure of practicing it even though the Egyptian lessons I took differed significantly from the Jordanian dialect.
As a crossroads, Jordan has a remarkable history from ancient Nabataeans to Alexander the Great, including Roman, Byzantine and Arab cultures. Beyond its historical monuments, Jordan has a very dynamic current culture. Shortly after arriving, I saw this firsthand as a local wedding party made its way into the hotel lobby to celebrate with dancing and music.
The next day, I left for a day trip to the capital to explore the Roman ruins of Amman. I stood puzzled above the city as I listened to the muezzin’s call to prayer. With only a brief stay I made the most of my time by having a driver as a local guide for about 12 hours each day. Fortunately, the distances were pretty close with the next day’s exploration focusing on the Roman ruins of Jerash. Its popular history begins in the time of Alexander the Great but fell to the Romans under Pompey in the first century AD. With the mild October climate, my guide and I then ate al fresco among the vines. There was no tour bus in sight!
The next day’s trip to Byzantine Madaba ended on the famous Dead Sea. Famous for its thermal cures, I just had time to contemplate the sea before retracing my steps to Amman.
Keeping the best to last meant a full day in the Pink City of Petra built by the Nabataeans. Featured in Indiana Jones and other films and in a detective story by best-selling British writer Agatha Christie, it’s a World Heritage Site that rivals the Pyramids. Beyond the Grand Trésor there is a series of small buildings and conveniently located outdoor cafes and handicrafts for sale. Of course, the scenic route to the entrance had to be done on the back of a camel, offering some great photo ops.
After an enchanting week, it was time to head to Dubai for a conference and then a brief sightseeing tour. Dubai is famous for the unexpected, like air-conditioned bus stops, the Palm Resort, and ultra-luxurious hotels. For me, as an “Intermittent Intermediate Skier”, I was fascinated by the indoor ski resort located in a local shopping mall. With limited expectations of a real workout, I knew this would make a great story and the perfect location for a vacation card photo. After a feast of Southern Fried Chicken in the food court of the Mall of the Emirates, I covered my summer clothes in a colorful ski outfit and rode the ski escalator and poles to the hand. After a few errands, it was off to a hot chocolate at the adjacent St. Moritz Cafe and the perfect end to my Middle Eastern odyssey.
As a woman traveling alone in the Middle East, I have followed two practices for which I find work in the world:
1. I organize a pick-up at the airport before leaving the house. In some countries taxis may not be safe for either men or women. Having navigated a low-intensity civil war in sub-Saharan Africa, I learned to ask my hotel what it recommended, especially when I was traveling alone. In the big capitals, arriving during the day, I often opt for public transport, in particular the train / metro or the taxi.
2. I choose a 5 star hotel which has several dining options conveniently both inside the hotel and nearby. Alternatively, when it was affordable like I found in Cairo I took a driver waiting for me or in Lisbon I took a round trip taxi to try the best restaurants. In any new place, I always ask a lot of questions, especially to get the opinion of local women, before I go for a walk alone after dark.
While in the Middle East, I also had 2 additional rules of thumb:
1. Even though I was both sightseeing and attending a business conference in the very hot weather in the desert, I wore long sleeve shirts with pants.
2. When I was the only single female in local restaurants, I always chose a seat / table right next to other pairs, groups of women, couples, or families.
5 tips I learned while trying to combine the useful with the pleasant:
1. To save on airline tickets, be sure to check connecting flights with extended layovers.
2. If possible, take care of business first, especially if complex flights can cause long delays.
3. Arrive during the weekend and give it a try to locate the fastest routes to your meetings. Even with a GPS, it is easy to run into problems. In a city abroad, I found massive constructions in the vicinity of my first meeting. Even on foot it was almost impossible to pass, and the addresses were obscured by construction scaffolding. In another foreign city, I discovered upon arriving on a date that the outside door was locked and I was having difficulty reaching someone inside via my cell phone.
4. Take a plane or wear a suit or appropriate business attire in case your luggage does not arrive on time.
5. Set multiple alarms on a travel clock, on your cell phone and with the hotel operator. Even at the best hotels, I had a missed alarm clock or room service error before a flight for a quick day trip. (If you can’t function without coffee and breakfast, have a back-up plan, if necessary, if room service doesn’t show up.)
The key is to plan ahead where possible and have some time to probe your destination. Otherwise, a video conference instead of a face to face meeting may be better value.