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Friday, September 3, 2010

Woman Wandering Solo: Elena Sevastiani

Women Wandering Solo is a series of guest posts that inform & encourage women who don't have travel partners to go ahead & take the trip anyway. There are so many amazing places to see in the world, & experiencing them solo could wind up being the best way to do it. To learn how you can share your own story with us, click here.

Living in Abu Dhabi

Elena Sevastiani is an interior designer living & working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. You can learn more at her website

As I sit on the Boeing 777, bound to Abu Dhabi for the second time, I decide to take out my laptop and use the next seven hours to write about what it is like for me to work and live as a single female in the United Arab Emirates, next to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

My mother and sisters begged me not to go to the Middle East. They knew for sure that I was going to get killed in the most tragic way, of course. Come to think of it, they told me the same thing about going to Colombia - and going to the Kinkos in the evenings during college. Well, I went anyway and lived to talk about it.

Whoever wrote, “A ship is safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for” knew something of the trials of traveling but also knew that he was prepared, ready, and equipped to meet the challenges. But, more importantly, he was ready for the thrill of adventure.

Perhaps, as a kid I watched too many episodes of Gilligan’s Island. Some of us have a strong urge to see and explore while others want the safety, familiarity and comforts of home. Get ready, get set and gooooooooo is my advice for single women who want to travel the world.


It is only prudent for one to assess the dangers involved in planning for any travel destination. I did my homework and determined that Abu Dhabi was safe enough for me. I can only comment on where I lived, Abu Dhabi, and not on the entire Middle East, but I felt very safe there.

The majority of people are expatriates from different parts of the world so the government is very eager to ensure the safety and security of people and assets. I saw no trace of terrorism, violence, war or persecution. I met enough American and British military personnel to convince me that it is at least not run over and controlled by guerillas, coups, boys with guns, and Taliban - or Los Angeles gangs.

The only time I was dreadfully fearful was riding or driving in a car every single, solitary day. No joking, it does have the highest number of auto fatalities in the world. Now I understand the humor in the TV show Taxi, to have casted a taxi driver who was from Abu Dhabi. It is the world capital for wild taxi drivers. No one could have prepared me for the speed and recklessness of all the drivers there. Pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way - even when they do! Also, prepare for all the loud, non-stop, honking.


Most of the food in Abu Dhabi is excellent, especially the buffet nights at all the hotels. Although, they don’t have good baked bread like we get back home in the States. I would have thought that I was closer to Challah bread heaven. Of course there’s plenty of pita bread and crusty rolls. One day, while walking past a tiny pita bakery, I watched a man kneading dough with his feet! I guess that breaks the monotony.

Restaurants always serve bottled water, never tap water, which means you have to pay for “just water, please”. Asking for a lemon with your water could also throw the waiters for a loop. I had to go into much explanation and detail for this request. The waiter returned with a glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice for me to pour into my water. Oh well, I guess we make too many assumptions.


Real estate prices and accommodations were outrageous, with few choices and far between. The first time I lived in Abu Dhabi, I got a studio apartment without a kitchen, closets, garage, lighting, window coverings, landscaped yards or shower rods for $3,000 per month. I also had to pay the full one year lease lump sum amount, plus a 10% commission fee plus a security deposit. The world expects Americans to be filthy rich and prices are set accordingly. This time, I will just move into a monthly, fully furnished hotel apartment and once I’m settled into work and culture, then do the decorating.


People do not observe standing in lines as customary in the States; they just pack in together in a mob formation, regardless of who is first, and sometimes get too close for my comfort.

The Grand Mosque is an architectural master piece and a must see. The calling for prayers from all the mosques is unique to their culture. (But do not use the neighborhood mosques has your driving landmarks because they are everywhere!) There are separate men and women prayer rooms in all buildings to accommodate those who can’t make it to the mosque at prayer time.

On the other hand, the inhuman treatment of the labor force from India, Pakistan and Philippines is sad to witness. Most live in labor camps, and it’s not uncommon for people to live ten to a room. Discrimination is normal, acceptable and within the law in Abu Dhabi.

Words can not begin to approximate what it is really like to be there. You must see it for yourself to really understand life in Abu Dhabi.

10 Things I must do this time around

1. Ride a camel
2. See the camel races
3. Go on the desert sand dune tours and overnight camping
4. Go to the beaches and get in the water, not just drive along the coast
5. Take the Shangri La Hotel sail boat ride to the Equator and have lunch
6. See Dubai from the top of the world’s tallest building
7. Go to more bazaars and souqs
8. Watch the belly dancers
9. Try driving like a wild taxi driver
10.Marry a rich Sheik


george said...


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scott said...

Hi Elena, very nice post. I read it with particular interest because a friend of mine is moving soon to Qatar to live. She has also been a prolific solo wanderer (I tried to pitch to her that she should contribute, Nancy!) but she is getting married and this time she will not be solo. Anyway, I liked the piece, however, the whole time I was reading it I was wondering why did you want to return a second time? I did feel that you liked it well enough the first time, but the motivation for a second stint wasn't clear. Especially at $3000 for a very small flat. There are lots of places the world over you could live for less.. Is it the job pays well enough to make it enticing to return? Or you fell in love the place and I just didn't pick that up from the piece.. or do you already have sheik in mind? :-)