Saturday, July 31, 2010

Omani Border Run....or the story of how we almost lost our country

We are "back home" in Abu Dhabi after a very scary and frightening venture into the Sultinate of Oman. Our goal was to leave UAE, return into the UAE with a new entrance Visa that starts the calendar clock ticking for another 30 days. We have to do this because it takes longer than 30 days to get work Visas all straightened out. My work Visa is in process thanks to our expediter who takes care of such things. But I have been here three weeks and so with just one more week if I don't get it taken care of my UAE visitor pass will expire and I would be in danger of getting my azz kicked back (I must admit I have had a few moments where that didn't sound so bad). Melissa was over here for a two month assignment. Out of the goodness of her heart she had agreed to extend that just a little longer to cover for another team member who is on leave. But that meant that her first extention would expire before she leaves so she also needed to re-enter the country. We decided we would head to Al Ain on the UAE/Oman border. We had been advised that "it's very simple. Just cross in, get an exit pass form UAE, go to the Oman crossing "just down the road" and get an Omani stamp, and then come back into the UAE." Oh, if it had been so simple.

But first, the good part...oh before I get to the good part of our stay in Al Ain, the really best, best news of looks like Melissa will be offered a long term assignment. So while she is headed back to the states in about a week she will just be staying for a few weeks (if she can get the offer negotiated out) and then will be coming back. As you can tell from many of my blog posts, Melissa has been a wonderful partner in crime. She had arrived here a few weeks before me and had many of the basics down. She also has learned to drive in this hostile road territory that is Abu Dhabi. She is aggressive and gutsy and very aware of all the potential moves of those crazy drivers around us. She is game for any invite and adventure. She strikes up conversation easily with people of all social strata here and gets us invites and escorts to many things. I cannot tell you how much better I feel about toughing it out here knowing that Melissa will be part of this longer term adventure. We will probably stay here at the company apartment with Rose for a few more months, to save some $$ toward down payment on another place, then we will strike it out on our own for some flat or villa or ...?? who knows?

So, after working a late night Thursday (our Friday) we got up Friday morning (our Saturday) and took off on our road trip to Al Ain. There we had booked a room at the lovely Rotana Hotel in Al Ain. The hotel was fabulous. So nice to be treated like special guests "Welcome, welcome, Madams. Do not lift a finger. That is why we are here. What do you need? How can we help?" After living through several weeks where everything seems a bit of a struggle (even the fun stuff: it's been a bit of a struggle just trying to figure out how to do things, what to do, how to act, what to wear...)it was so refreshing to check into a place where the goal is to make our life easier. Al Ain is about 1.5 hours drive away, southwest from Abu Dhabi, right up next to the Oman border. We used Rawad's Rotana Club card, and were upgraded to an even nicer room with a big deck. This is summer here and so the off season. This luxery room at this fabulous hotel was only about $150/night US. You should have seen us opening up drawers and closets, oohing and awing about all the little extras. The thick white robes and cushy slippers were enough to move us to tears. Then the cold beers and chocolattes in the honor bar were like Christmas in July.

After we got over our giddyness we stuffed ourselves into our swimsuits and headed for the pool. We had serious tanning and swimming to do. At the pool we chose our lounges and before we could set anything down the lifeguard ran over with towels and special chair covers. He adjusted our umbrellas and wished us good tidings. No sooner had we sat down when another gentleman arrived with a tray of cooled damp hand towels. Right behind him was another man with complimentery skewers of fresh fruit. This fellow took our drink order (G&T's all around please) and we settled in to pool people watching and serious tanning.

At our side of the pool there were several kids. Most of the young girls had on long sleeved/long legged drysuit looking things with skirts. They really do swim in these things here. The boys were mostly wearing very long (below the knee) swim trunks, pulled funnily up to their upper tummy. Very strange. Most kids had a nanny/maid, in uniform and scarf, hanging out under an umbrella but doing nothing to discipline the kids. The lifeguards had to straighten them out and the kids were mostly mouthy back. I felt sorry for the lifeguards: there is no dealing with these kids with attitude. At one point the lifeguard told a little girl the the fine for doing whatever she was doing was $50 dirhams. She shouted back "phhhht. I have $1,000 dirhams with me." We realized too late that we were kind of over on the childrens side of the pool and most adults were on the far side. But we had gotten there kind of late and we were on the only side that seemed to have available lounges at that time.

Looking around at the other adults around the pool, many women had on Abayas even in the poolside sun. Others were expats from a variety of countries. Though I brought my more conservative tankini I could have not too uncomfortably worn a two piece: there were pleanty of heavier women around who didn't seem bothered by their own rolls. There were also some who could wear a two piece admirably: that is inspiration for the future. There were also a mix of men around. A few westerners, but mostly those that seem more Middle Eastern of some sort.

When it got too hot we dipped in the pool and were quite excited to discover around the corner a swim up bar. We swam up. We opted for a Pina Colada. This drink was the only dissapointment. Just don't think they know how to make them. But it was fun just feeling decadent for actually swimming up to the bar and sit there in the heat of the sun and the cool of the pool and drink alcohol in this dry country.

After a few hours we threw in the towel and went up to the room to shower and change and head out for our evening adventures. After a very confusing conversation with four different people behind the desk we got what we thought were good directions to the two places we wanted to go: a good shopping mall that had an H&M and a Marks and Spencer (I am still trying to add to my professional wardrobe) and the Al Ain zoo. After all the confusion on directions from the desk we decided taking a cab was probably a better choice. So we hit the mall: I have to say that the Abu Dhabi malls are all starting to feel the same. We got a few things and then left quickly: no mall wandering this night. Not when we had a great hotel to get back to. We hired a cab to take us from the mall to the zoo. The Al Ain zoo is supposedly a sister zoo with the San Diego zoo and is supposed to be quite good. However, because of the summer heat the opening hours are just 4 PM to 11 PM. It was dark by the time we got there. We were sent directly to "a show" that was starting just after we arrived. We walked for what seemed forever, following crowds of folks in flowing abayas and dishdashes, pushing strollers and carrying sleepy kids. Now in the night air it is supposedly cooler. Um, maybe, but relative to what? It still felt like being in a furnace. The show we finally arrived at was some sort of bird show. We sat for about three minutes and decided it would be better to get the rest of the zoo covered so we could get back to the hotel. We got terrigly turned around in the dark and the confusion from arabic signs. I don't know how much we covered. It was dark and exhibits were poorly lit. We did wander through a good reptile house, saw some little monkeys, some hyenas, a lion, some leapords, a cheetah, some giraffes, ostriches and emus, flamingos, a nocturnal exhibit (mostly rodents)and I think that was about it. A bit of a let down but it was something on our list so we got it crossed off.

Back at the hotel we went to the buffet restaurant "Zest". There was the most amazing spread of Arabic, Indian, Sushi, western, European, seafood foods. Even with little samples of just a portion of what was available our stomachs were stretched beyond comfort. We were so full and sleepy we just went back to the room rather than taking in the nightclubbing at Trader Vic's we had originally intended to do.

A good nights sleep in the comfortable beds and we were ready to take on the task of relaxing by the pool again. We staked out our chairs and then went out to find breakfast. We were so early the only place open was the buffet restaurant again so we managed to find a few (wink, wink) edible things: omlettes made to order, smoothies, yogurts, fresh fruit and fruit juices, grilled vegetables, veal ham and beef bacon (we are still in Muslim territory), and, and, and...I can't even remember. Again, our stomachs were full way before we had sampled all we would have wanted to.

Then back to the pool. Again we were well taken care of by the lifeguards. We were early enough to get the adult area. We read and tanned and slipped in and out of the pool whenever the heat got to be too much. After a while a young woman sat down in the chair next to me and we struck up a lively conversation. She is a young Emerati woman (22 years old) who has her own business in Abu Dhabi helping foreign companies set up business in Abu Dhabi. She is very sharp, energetic, well connected and just plain impressive. She was very open about being a liberal Muslim woman. She doesn't drink but helps companies get liquor licenses and is comfortable hanging around businesses affairs where liquor is served. She is a virgin (this was said quite matter of factly as if she could be noghing but one) but can hang out by the pool in a tiny swimsuit and has to constantly deal with men hitting on her. She knows that in the future she will marry another Muslim and at that time her freedom will be taken away. As she put it, most Muslim women marry very early and then go crazy. Her strategy is to go crazy now and then marry after she's gotten that out of her system. We exchanged contact info and I will follow up with her as an in to the Am Cham (American Chamber of Commerce in Abu Dhabi) organization. And it will just be fun to get to know her better and learn more about what it is like to be a smart, driven local woman in this environment.

Alas, we had to check out of the comfort of the Rotana and get our Visa issue taken care of. As noted earlier, we had been advised that 'it's no big thing" We thought we were off to a good start as we navigated directly from the hotel to the Hili border point. That was as easy as a sneeze compared to what we had ahead of us. Warning: this is long and complicated but you need to truly understand what we've been through. It paints a good picture of what it is like to try to figure things out in a place like this. Picture yourself in a very dusty, old town with run down businesses, no modern buildings or hotels in sight, signs mostly all in Arabic, and those few that had words in English saying nothing about what to do if you are a visitor needing to get in and out. Here we go:

1. Show passport at armed checkpoint leaving City. Greeted nicely by two men who almost flirtingly advise us to enjoy our trip. They give dirctions for us to move forward, take a left and enter building two to get UAE exit visa.

2. Miss turn immediately left, enter town, find no Building two for Visa, return to border entry, circle traffic circle and see side road to left of entry. Go down side road, realize this is not border related either, turn around go back and find another little road that looks like it just goes right back into UAE, but seeing no other option enter this.

3. Park car, wander into what looked like the second building. Nobody at reception. Some man at other end of hall shouts at us to come over "What do you need? I cannot tell what you need??" We say "exit Visa??" He grumbles, gets up from his desk, takes us back to the door we came in and points us to the adjacent "building" (actually a prefab trailer like building attached to the first building) and just about shoves us out the door.

4. Wander to that building. Hard to tell which of two doors is what we want. We choose door B and enter a waiting room with several rows of chairs, mostly full of other people in the seats and one rather authoratative man sitting behind a desk. We look around for the "take a number post." There is none. So we sit in chairs and watch. The man behind the desk deals with one person and another all the while more people coming in. When the last person that was there when we entered is done he signals for us to approach. Apparently he is good at tracking who came in when even though we didn't see him look up to know we had arrived. He looks at our passports, asks us what we want, charges us some money stamps our passports and sends us on. We did get the directions from him to go to the second roundabout and turn left to get our Omani stamps(s) and then we were off.

5. Enter the two roundabouts, see absolutely no signs telling us where to go to get Omani stamp. Take left at the roundabout anyway and start down a road that goes through several blocks of seedier and seedier establishements until we are on a road that obviously goes nowhere but the dessert and away from the borders. Soon we convince ourselves this is no route to anything official so turn around and go back toward the gate. Melissa parks the car near the border and I walk back to the gate area.

6. I get the attention of some guard person. He asks us where we are trying to go. It's hard to explain because we don't know exactly what it is we are trying to get or where to get it. I don't even know if we've really actually entered Oman because the area near the gate where we got our exit stamps was still UAE and we haven't seen anything or checked in anywhere that was Oman. I ask the guard "where am I, what country is THIS?" He looks at my feet. He says "madam, you are in UAE." He points to the car with Melissa a few feet away. "Is that your car?" "Yes" I say (finally a quesiton with an answer I am sure of). "Madam, you are in UAE. Your car is in Oman." Then he directs me to the second roundabout and take a left to get to the Oman station to get our entry stamp. Same directions as before. So we do it again, looking more closely for those signs to tell us where to go. Nope, no signs.

7. Pull into a gas station to ask if we are on the right track. Fortunately, though the shopkeeper doesn't understand me, a local man, does. After describing what I think we are trying to do, he says yes, we are on the right road heading in the right direction. He says go through two roundabouts. At the second roundabout that is in the middle of the mountains, take a left and go until you get to the Oman border checkpoint. OK, well I guess we are headed in the right direction.

8. Drive through the first roundabout and get into road that is heading out of town into what appears to be deserted, dry, ceivilation starved land. I am thinking, this is like a scary movie. we are headed into war territory. We will get pulled over by "police" who will take us and torture us and we will never be seen again. Seriously, if we had had any car problems or been low on gas we would have been in helluvtrouble. But I do see mountains ahead, and the guy said something about a roundabout in the mountains so we keep heading forward. After many, many kilometers we get to a roundabout in the middle of some sharp jagged hills (mountains) and we take a left. Mind you nothing on the signs say anything about a border authority. Our only hint is that as soon as we get on this new road there is an insurance store "open 24 hours" We had heard that we need to have proof of car insurance to get entrance into Oman (we had taken care of this before leaving Abu Dhabi) so we go with these instructions. Truly folks, we are in the middle of nowhere. No buildings, no signs, very few other cars. This is getting scaryer by the kilometer, but there is nowhere to ask so we just go with it. Occasionally there is a little road off with signs in Arabic. A restaurant or building speckled here or there. Nothing that looks like it would have anyone who could help. And finally we see a building in the distance with lots of flags so we think we have found something of signifigance. I say a prayer that this be a place that we need. We pass a few checkpoints and get to a window where they take our passports and walk away. Melissa and I exchange paniced looks.

9. The guy returns and says pull forward and park and go into the building. So we do. What else could we do? We enter a large building, of course no other women in sight. We see a window with some people standing in line and so we join. The window says something about visas. We watch some of the guys infront of us reach into bags and pull out stacks of passports. Those get stamped and handed back quickly. We realize that we should have just sent someone else to do this dirty work for us. The guy behind the window is very nice. Takes our passports. Takes some money (he'll take my Visa Card which is good because we have no Omani currency). Stamps the passports and gives us a receipt. We have our Oman entry visa. I ask if we need an exit vist to return to UAE. He smiles and shrugs and says "not always." Winks and sends us on our way.

10. So we loop back around the building without going through the next guarded checkpoint and head back to where we were. At the exit window we start to hand the guy our passports, I thought we needed an exit stamp, but he waves us on as if he's been called ahead and was expecting us. We are grateful for the ease of that. We then must go through the police checkpoint. The guy takes our receipt, not looking at our passports and we head back to the border. We congratulate ourselves for getting to this outpost and getting our business done.

11. We drive back to the roundabout in the middle of the mountains and then back through the rundown town with no good signs or directions and head back to where we entered the country. We try to go through the entry into the UAE but are told we need to get an entry stamp from the same building where we got our exit stamp.

12. We circle back, park again infront of that building. This time nobody is waiting and there is a new guy behind the desk. He is busy counting a big stack of money so we have to wait. He finishes up and motions to us to hand inour passport. We say we need an entry stamp for the UAE. He flips all through out passports and asks where our exit stamp from Oman is. (here my eyes well up and I gasp. Really? really? Oh God, no please. Really?) We have to drive back through the dessert, into war country again to get an exit stamp from Oman. This is too much. Only we have no choice. The guy at the desk almost looks sorry. I grill him: really? Really? I ask. Is there somewhere closer. Nope.

13. So we go back through the dessert, into the mountains, to the roundabout. I am writing down all the names on the signs we have to follow. We are counting roundabouts and taking down kilometerage (that's "mileage" in kilometers. I made it up). We are going to write failureproof directions. Nobody should have to go through this crap. It's scary crap. Eventually we get back to the Oman outpost.

14. Park the car. Enter the building. Stand behind the group of passport runners at the window. The official who gave us our enter stamp quizzes us about our "short visit." Finally he gives us a stamp and sends us back. We got back through the police checkpoint and head back again to the UAE border.

15. This time there is a lot more traffic heading back. And then we see it: a dust hurricane in the distance. Everything slows down. We see debris circling around and the road visibility looks impossible. We are laughing and crying at the same time: exhausted with this whole effort and now a tornado? We know the locusts and floods are waiting in the wings. We are behind a very large truck that acts as guide and we get through this storm.

16. Back to the border. Park the car. See our large official at the Visa office. Again no others waiting and for this at least we are grateful. He actually smiles at us. Thumbs carefully through our passports again. Stamps our passports (a very, very positive sound). I am so excited I give Melissa a high five without thinking. I think this made Melissa nervous. This is such a serious business we don't want any delays for exhuberant behavior.

17. We get to the car. Point it towards the entry to UAE and hold our breath. We make it past one policeman in the road. Get to the checkpoint. Don't breath, don't breath. Guy looks at everything and waves us on. As soon as we enter the road on the other side we whoop it up. Loud. Scream in the closed car. I think "We made it home" and then realize that I consider UAE friendly territory, home even.

Now we are hungry and in need of a bathroom. We still have the ride back to Abu Dhabi in front of us. No roadside Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken for us (these two restaurants are all over the place. We have yet to try one). We deserve real food and a good restroom. We go to a good seafood restaurant that we had seen advertised at teh Rotana. It is good. We are finally able to breath a bit. And then we are on our way back to Abu Dhabi. Back to the flat. Back to face the new work week with its new challenges. Time to dream. Hopefully no espionage, thriller passport nightmare kind of dreams. Hopefully more like dreaming of home and friends and being confident in knowing what we are doing kind of dreams. Enough nightmares for this day already.

Sweet dreams....

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wedding in Atlantis....the adventure continues

Before the adventures of the new weekend begin and the last are just an ancient memory I should try to recapture what it is like to go to a Jordanian wedding at the Atlantis resort in Dubai. Rawad and I were invited by a young woman, T, we interviewed to come work for us. This was about my third day in the office. T arrived for her interview, a beautiful, confident young woman, wearing a scarf over head but no abaya. Her education and experience are just what we are looking for. As she was leaving we wished her well on her upcoming wedding and she enthusiastically invited us to attend. (This was before we had attended Abdullah’s bride’s wedding night celebration). We subsequently have given her a job offer but it arrived two days before her wedding. She is off on her honeymoon now and we have not heard back but we are hopeful T will join Transpo’s Abu Dhabi office soon.

In the week following the interview we received an invite to her wedding celebration held at the Atlantis Resort in Dubai. After having one great wedding experience and the chance to see the Atlantis on Palm Island, how could I refuse? Friday, after taking most of the day to recover from the Lebanese night club experience from the evening before, Rawad and Melissa and I hopped in the car and headed for Dubai. The second visit into this crazy town held just as many surprises as the first. Our first stop was at the far side of town to the City Center mall. To get there we drove past the same odd buildings sited the first time through, past the Burg Kahleefa (aka Burg Dubai…the tallest building in the world) and so got treated to a whole new assortment of buildings. We drove past the new Dubai airport and over a convoluted series of ramps and turns (thank Goodness Rawad was driving because we would have never been able to find it ourselves) and arrived at the Mall. This mall was bustling with activity. The busiest mall we’ve been to yet. This is the sales season. All the stores were sporting large signs. The sales at this and other malls end on August 9, just before the start of Ramadan. Then apparently things go back to normal prices. Rawad told us that the stores do not normally have sales as in order to advertise a sale the store has to go through government paperwork to get permits. Too much hassle so they just have sales once, during the sales season. I have tried to get paperwork done by the government here. I would avoid having to do that if possible so I now understand this sales pattern. We found an H and M store and I was actually able to find a suit that fit (a few days later I took it to the woman’s tailor a few doors down from our office. They hemmed the pants and jacket sleeves for the equivalent of about $8 US and were ready for pick up in three hours). The suit, not on sale, came to about $130 US. I still can’t figure out pricing here: while housing is extremely expensive, and some restaurants, the ones in the hotels, you can spend an arm and a leg to feed yourself, other food and restaurants are inexpensive. And I can buy a sharp, classy business suit for well under the $400 dollars I would expect to pay in the states. (Those that know me know I am not into designer labels and chatting about how much I paid for this or that. I usually cringe when someone goes on to tell me how much they paid for this or that so it feels a bit awkward doing that here. I think I am doing so here because the shopping and pricing here still have me confused. The exchange rate is currently around 3.6 dirams to the dollar. Though I am getting better at doing the division in my head I sometimes stumble and gasp at what the tags say and am so relieved to figure out than instead of being extravagant on spending on myself I am giving myself a good bargain).

Anyway, back to the Dubai trip. The wedding invite was for a wedding to start at 8 PM. I have learned that that means don’t dare arrive at 8 or you will be there before they are even set up. We got to Palm Island around 8:30. The center spine of the island is lined with these opulent gold residential buildings. It looks like quite the hot spot to live. However the economy in Dubai has been hit so badly that even these homes are a great bargain. At the end of the spine (or palm trunk) we see the Atlantis gloriously displayed before us. We duck into a tunnel and pop out on “the crescent” which is the ring around the palm tree island. This lushly planted wonderland has a magical feeling about it. Like arriving in a special Disneyland for adults. We follow signs to the wedding reception which is located in a ballroom at a far side of this huge hotel complex. After valeting the car we walk into the lobby straight out of someone’s fantasy.

The floors are an intricate mosaic of marble. Carved palm tree pillars hold up a very high dome that is hand painted with an underwater scene. We turn Melissa loose to explore Atlantis while we find the wedding reception. We walk down a long hallway to a lobby where we are greeted by a group of older men who welcome us to the party. Servers stand by offering trays of various juices. I imagine how nice it would be if those glasses of juices were good red wine or chilled champagne. Especially as it would be nice to take the edge off of walking into a room of elegantly dressed strangers. I am once again grateful I had the foresight to get a nice long dress before I came that will stand in at these types of occasions until I can find another. If I am going to be going to weddings every weekend I will need to upgrade my formal wardrobe.

The ballroom is filled with beautifully decorated tables. A huge lighting and camera boom takes up a corner. Technicians are busily fine tuning the settings and testing the hydraulics. Young children sharply dressed up run up and down the aisle. At the end of the aisle are a dance floor and then a stage with a sparkly white lounge displayed. Based on this and the other wedding celebration we went to, it looks like rather than alters and candles, weddings in this part of the world have disco balls and lounges.

Rawad and I take a seat at a table at the back. Only about a third of the tables/seats are occupied yet. Looks like it might be a while before things get started. We get up and stretch in the lobby for a while and then go back. We are joined at our table by a beautiful young couple. She was a college mate with T’s new husband. She works for the Port of Dubai in planning. He works for a developer that does projects for the military. We exchange business cards and pleasantries. Along about 10 PM we hear joyful music and drums somewhere off in the distance. The couple has arrived…finally! Down at the end of the long hallway, a crowd has gathered. Men are dancing. A bagpipe is playing. A group of young men in gypsy clothes are singing. The crowd is throbbing. This is a celebration folks and I think how cool to start the wedding as a true celebration. T is in a beautiful white wedding gown and veil with train. She is stunningly beautiful and glowing. Her new husband is beaming receiving enthusiastic hugs from the men in the crowd. There is a bagpipe along with other native instruments and drums. It’s difficult to convey on page how truly happy this occasion and procession is.

The celebration continues outside the ballroom for a long time. We all go into the ballroom while the bride and groom are delayed by massive picture taking efforts. Finally they enter the ballroom. The big camera boom captures everything and broadcasts it on the big screen upfront. The bride and groom (no attendants) go up to the lounge and the dancer/musician troupe entertains the crowd for a very long time. The fast footwork and high jumping are impressive. The crowd sings along and claps. Finally the dance troupe leaves. In short order a cake is cut (with a saber), a couple’s toast is shared, and the bride and groom have their special dance. Then people from the crowd join the couple on the dance floor. The dancing goes on and on and on. There is a beautiful food buffet waiting in the lobby but nobody is making a move to start it. We have to wait for the dancing to end. It never does. Rawad and I want to give our best wishes to T and her husband before we leave. About 11 PM the couple leaves the room to the lobby. Rawad and I give them our congratulations and then take our leave. We still have to drive back to Abu Dhabi and I want to check out the rest of the hotel before we leave.

We join Melissa who has had several hours of wandering to learn the lay of the land. She has had an elaborate henna design put on her foot and shares her stories of her conversation with the henna ladies. She gives us a tour of the grand lobby where a Chihuly sculpture stretches from floor to ceiling. Breathtaking. The bustle in the lobby is an international smorgasbord of families and couples escaping the heat for the weekend. We walk through the lobby down another hallway. There are crystal shielded bars serving high-class customers. It all has a sense of an intriguing spy thriller. Minus the guns and espionage music. At the end of a long hallway with walls lined with fantastical art installations, is a glass pane of a five story high tropical aquarium. Skates and sharks mingle with brightly colored schools of fish. Outside we hear the throbbing beat of a crowded pool party. A band is playing pop music as young bikini clad girls grind around swim trunked studs. It looks like spring break on MTV. It is getting late and we have to drive back to Abu Dhabi yet so we don’t get to see the large water park with the tube that goes through a shark reef or the dolphin park area. Something to come back to in the future.

I will try to add in pictures but for now must post this before we start our Omani border dash adventure. I hope to be sitting by a pool, sipping on a drink with a little umbrella in it, falling asleep while reading my Kindle. I want to be OUTDOORS. So tired of being cooped up in air-conditioned rooms.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Night on the Town

(this is a belated post...I wanted to upload some pictures but it's taking too I'll just post as is and hope to add those later. I still wanted to add info on the following night when we went to a wedding at the Atlantis Resort in Dubai. Another memorable night.)

Thursday after work (that’s our “Friday” end of work week) we (Transpo Abu Dhabi) set out to celebrate in style. It was a combination celebration of Manuel’s birthday, welcome back Rose, Thank You to Melissa for stepping in for Rose, Welcome to Jennifer, Hicham, Graham and Omar. As you can see, things are very fluid here in Abu Dhabi.

It was to start with the delivery of the birthday cake at 3 PM. About 4 PM the delivery guy started to call. Nabeel’s voice got louder and louder with his frustration trying to tell the guy who spoke only Hindi where our office was. The guy interpreted Nabeel’s instructions for Al Wahda Mall as Abu Dhabi Mall so he went there first. And second. He went to Airport Road (a close cross street) several times. He was there for a span of another hour. Listening to Nabeel’s query he ended up looking for a building called “Are You In A Car” building. And the equally well known “You Are Lost” building. Others in the office tried to take over for Nabeel when his blood pressure was too high to do anything but sputter. They were equally unsuccessful. About 5:30 Nabeel finally told the guy just take the cake back to the shop. Then as soon as he said that, the apartment concierge (I use that term loosely) showed up. He appears to be Indian so we asked if he spoke Hindi. He did and agreed to get on the phone to instruct the guy. Another 45 minutes of botched directions until he declared the delivery person too stupid to get it here. We gave up. We determined that the cake would be pretty wilted by the time it got here anyway. We decided to start the evening without cake.

From here we took a cab ride to the Beach Rotana Hotel and began assembling in the German Pub. Melissa looked at me and said “This is where the other Abu Dhabi world is.” Here there were no Abayas or Dish Dashes. Drinks were easily ordered (beer of course because this was a German Pub after all). A few at the table could not resist ordering pork sausages because they could. We were served complimentary rolls with mustard flavored butters. The main difference between this and bars at the states is they still allow smoking indoors. There weren’t a lot of people smoking but enough to notice.

After enjoying ourselves there we wandered into Trader Vic’s restaurant at the same Hotel. This is after we wandered through a BeniHana’s that had the most incredible looking seafood buffet. We will definitely be going back to that soon. At Trader Vic’s we all ordered a strong tropical drink to our liking. About this time our faces were getting a bit numb. So we opted to move on.

Next we headed to the Meridian Hotel, which is just on the other side of the Abu Dhabi Mall from the Beach Rotana. Though it was just a short stumble away Nabeel hopped in a cab and forced us ladies to ride in the cool instead of walk in the heat. Gotta love that guy. The young Pakistani driver who is new to the job just a few weeks was delighted that the 5 dirham cab netted him 15 dirhams (that’s a total of less than $3 folks) though it took us nearly as long to get there as the walkers due to the creative parking lot parking and aggressive honkers he had to deal with.

Rawad had arranged through his cousin for us to get reservations at a renowned Lebanese restaurant/club at the Meridien. But these things don’t get started until 11 PM so we still had another bar to hang out in to kill time. This time it was the lobby bar at La Meridien. Finally (thank goodness) we could arrive at dinner.

Al Birkeh is a traditional Lebanese club. We were seated at a long table and immediately the dishes started arriving. The table was crammed with delicious labneh (my favorite. Thick yogurt cheese seasoned with lemon and mint, scooped up with fresh flat bread), creamy houmous (better than anything you can buy in the states), moutabel (baba ganoosh made from smoky grilled eggplant and tahini), stuffed grape leaves, tabouleh (the tabouleh here has no grain in it, just parsley, mint, lemon juice, garlic, onions and tomatoes), fattoush (salad with fried bread), another salad with some kind of bitter greens, bowls of olives, chunks of feta cheese, ground raw lamb with seasonings (only approachable due to the preliminary lubing of drinks at previous establishments), some sort of baked spinachy thing with onions, a dish with ground nuts, cheeses, herbs and spices. Then they brought a few dishes of meat (still on the appetizer course). One delicious sausages. The other what looked to be lovely steak tenders but turned out to be grilled liver. Blech! Three of us bit into a piece simultaneously. Let’s just say there was much tongue scraping, gagging and napkin spitting!

I also used the occasion to try the shiishii (or Hookah) pipe. Apple/pineapple flavor was selected for me. It was actually very pleasant: no tobacco flavor at all. Looking around the place I’d say a good fourth to third of the people present had a water pipe going throughout the evening. By now the rest of the place had filled up. Mostly men (I guess the women and children mostly leave the UAE at this time of year and go back to home country or cooler places). There were some Emirati and others in national dress. And several couples in western dress. Actually, the women were quite elegantly dressed in clubbing (short, tight, revealing) clothes with lots of makeup. I felt a bit like the country bumpkin. Liquor was available but I had already had more than my fair share. Unfortunately the prefunction with beer and bread was a mistake before this humongous meal. I had to throw in the towel pretty much before the main course came. The main course was a mixed grill; a big selection of various meats piled high on a platter with rice pilaf. This was eventually cleared and platters of fresh fruit arrived along with some little date and nut stuffed pastries with a thick creamy dipping sauce and sweet cheese and coconut filled crepes. All of this I pretty much admired from afar, too stuffed to partake. Next time I will know not to prefunction before this spread. It pained me not to try this good food but it would have pained me more to try to eat it.

The evening entertainment, other than the people watching, was the Lebanese belly dancer. She was certainly seductive and had all the men’s undivided attention. It seemed so strange to be in the middle of this strict country with the same men who are careful not to look sideways at a woman to openly ogle a belly dancer in public. I have heard that the hotel/club world is distinctly separated from the pubic UAE world and this night I witnessed what that meant. Following the dancer was a singer who also moved flirtily for the men. Many of the men by this time were inspired and got up to the front and began the line dancing. It was so much fun to see them enjoy themselves dancing. Where I come from most men seem pained to dance. There is a standard kind of dance step that has a difficult rhythm but once you get it it looks doable. Some women also joined the line. The line leaders looked so happy to be leading the men, all holding hands high and low and pulsing to the Arabian music. It was about this time that I had my hundredth “am I really here, right here in an Arabian country, in my life?” Nabeel and Rawad from our table joined in with the men in the round a few times. They looked very happy to be partaking. I enviously looked on, thinking of dinner at home around the table with my girlfriends, eating, laughing, maybe not dancing, but feeling at home.

We gave up around 2:00 in the morning. The place was still hopping. Took a cab back to the flat. Oh what a night….

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Take a look at this:

What do you think this is?

What does it do?

Closer....come closer...and see.

It appears to be...


(how do you suppose that works?)

Just another of the amusing things one can find at Lu Lu’s market: the Fred Meyer of Al Wahda Mall. The mall is “across the street” from our office/apartment building. The street it is across is a six lane boulevard with median. To get to it we walk to the middle of our block, enter an unairconditioned pedestrian underpass, pop out on the other side in front of the mall, walk through “the pizza oven” (a corridor through the parking garage that pops out into the mall). The route is about ¼ mile each way. The walk from our office to the entrance of the pedestrian tunnel takes us past some interesting businesses:

  • There is the tiny convenience store where we buy our 5-litre bottles of water (cost about $1 US). Here they also have a decent assortment of vegetables and other staples. But the only thing we buy here is water and an occasional piece of chocolate. Can’t buy that at the mall because it would melt before we got it home. From this little store it only partially melts by the time we get home.
  • We pass by a Pakistani grill of some sort. It looks like a popular place. It also looks very hot. There is a big open charcoal grill we can see from the window. Though the food may be good we are not checking it out. It is packed with Pakistanis. Let me think how to put this delicately. There can be a problem with strong body odor in this heat. It doesn’t seem to bother some folks as much as others. Many Pakistanis are accustomed to this affect and it doesn’t seem to bother them and so they don’t keep on top of it. Let’s just say that the thought of being in an enclosed restaurant crowded with these folks cancels out the desire to check out the food. You follow?
  • There is a hookah pipe store. That’s right. A head shop. While alcohol and pork are forbidden, the locals do smoke water pipes. Just tobacco. No funny stuff. At least not that I’m aware of. There are restaurants with lounges foggy from all the hookah pipe smoke. It is a communal thing. The women smoke it as well as the men. The women that are allowed to commune with the men in public that is. I would like to partake of it. Not so much for the buzz but for the picture, you know. I haven’t had a picture with a hookah pipe since college! Anyway, this smoke is a large space just crammed full of different hookahs. There always seems to be a person or two in there shopping.
  • We also pass about three different cell phone stores. Cell phone stores are everywhere. I have no idea how they stay in business. I never see anyone shopping there. The shops are very small: just a counter and wall to wall phone packages.
  • There are laundry businesses. Often you will see the hot steam irons going and four to eight men all crowded into the space pressing laundry. It seems to be a social business. It also looks too hot to bear. I will find a laundry place soon. I think I can get my shirts pressed for less than a dollar and since we don’t have dryers (and because I wear dress shirts here) my clothes need ironing. I am not into ironing. Enough said.
  • There are little trinket shops which seem to have an odd assortment of umbrellas (people use them for shade here…not for rain), cheap toys and beads, odd looking foodstuffs, and hair and cleaning products. Somehow these too keep in business despite the low amount of traffic we see in them. Maybe relatives keep the things running.
  • There are dishdash shops. Dishdashes are the long white gowns that the men wear here. At the malls most men are in dishdashes while out on the streets there are more working men seen who just wear dark pants and dark long sleeved sweat stained shirts. In the offices there are many dishdashes seen. The only ones who don’t wear them are the western expats who are there on assignment or hire. The sight of these, along with the women in Abayas was shocking at first. Now I am getting used to it. Given the clothing dilemnas I’m having (trying to figure out what is appropriate for a woman to wear and for what occasion) I am kind of thinking that throwing on a dishdash or abaya would be so much easier. Anyway, back to my block, the dishdash shops look a little boring. It would be like going into a shop back home and finding just white dress shirts for men.

By the way, the blocks here are very, very large. Each block is about 1/3 mile x ½ mile square (1,800 x 2,000 feet). By comparison, a typical downtown Seattle block is just over 300'x300'. There are actually blocks within blocks. If you go to Google Earth and zoom in on Abu Dhabi City about three “blocks” back from the waterfront you will see one block where all the interior streets run on the diagonal. That’s our block. We are on the south end, third office building from the right. You can’t tell it from the aerial view but, other than the diagonal streets, this block is typical of the City blocks. The outer edge of the block is all mid-rise buildings of seven to twenty stories tall. They may be office or residential. They range from fairly new to well used and falling apart. The first floor is always restaurant or retail ranging from the very small stores like I described to larger businesses and markets. There is a Lamborghini store across the street. Just plopped in among the restaurants and cell phone shops.

Behind this outer skin of buildings is the local neighborhood. Mostly homes or small apartment buildings no more than two stories. And Mosques. There are several Mosques in each of these blocks. From these Mosques the call to prayer is broadcast five times a day, starting before sunrise (4:30 AM these days) and ending after sundown. The call differs by time of day but it is always mournful and sad sounding to me. There is a mosque directly across the (inner block) street from our building. The call is so loud that phone conversations have to be paused until it ends as you can’t talk over the sound. I am getting more conditioned to it. I don’t always hear the early morning one now and don’t often take much notice of the others. Unless I’m trying to have a conversation or am on the phone.

There is not much parking provided for all these people and businesses. No underground parking and no surface lots other than the small parking areas along the frontage roads. Only the new buildings are required to provide parking for tenants and until that takes on a large scale parking will be a battle. I will describe that fun in another post.

Anyway, welcome to my neighborhood!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

It's Getting Hotter...

Fountain at Dubai Mall

I have been here about a week and a half. I have not adjusted fully to the heat. I am realizing that you never do when you spend nearly every moment in the comfort of airconditioning. Yesterday someone in the office looked up the current heat index. It came out at 130-degrees (109-temp plus 60% humidity). When you step outside under these conditions your sunglasses immediately fog up. Then you have to perch them at the end of your nose so you can see. Eventually they clear up. The transition zone between the airconditoined building (or car) and the blanket of heat takes about two steps. Then you are "hugged" by a heavy embrace of heat.

Our kitchen is very small and not much equipped. We try to cook a few meals a week but for the most part we walk to something nearby. Usually wearing jeans or other long pants and something with sleeves, often long sleeves. When possible we walk on the shady side of the buildings. If crossing a big street we have to wait for the right signal phase. There are too many u-turns and double lefts and light racers that you have to be very careful. So you wait in the heat on the pavement in your long clothes and sweat.

We are living in a hot yoga class. A steam sauna. Another thing I have to figure out about wearing here is what colors/fabrics hide the sweat the best. Dark reds, turqoise...not so good.

Night before last the four of us in the apartments walked to the Corniche. We left about 9 PM "after things cool down." We were going to take a cab home. By the time we got there we were so sweaty (I mean soaked through). We couldn't imagine getting in a cab together. And I don't think any respectable cab driver would have wanted us in his cab. So we walked back. The whole trip was around 5 miles. I figure I got all impurities out and then some. Melissa went over the top at the end and took the 15 floors of stairs back to the apartment. Unbelievable.

Stay cool!

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Night to Remember

It is 1:30 in the morning and we have just returned from an evening as memorable as I have ever had. We were the guests of the PR man (expediter) who serves our office. I in fact have never even met this man as he hasn't been around since I arrived, but he extended an invitation to join with Melissa, May (Hicham's wife) and one of her two daughters, Eman at the women's party. The men had gone to the men's party the night before. The party was in the grand ballroom of the Beach Rotana Hotel in the Tourist Club area, near Abu Dhabi mall. As soon as we went through the outer doors our world changed. ....(to be continued...dozing off)

The men and women celebrate separately as this is a Muslim country and the two do not mix freely. At the women's party there are no men around (with an exception for a short period of time that I will get to later). Not even the photographers. All the wait staff are women. There were men in the live band that provided lively Arabic music throughout but they were in some other room or behind a screen and never saw or were seen. While there was a photographer the world at large will never see the pictures. The ladies were out from under the veil. For the formal photos with the bride the women put on their veils. Melissa and I had schemed about how I could maybe capture a few photos with my iPhone pretending to take a call. But to be there, to be so very privileged to participate in this mystical ritual was such an honor. I would never break the rules and show you these women from behind the veil. We did not take any pictures. You will have to try to imagine from my descriptions. And as hard as you imagine you will only be able to "see" just a glimpse as this was far beyond anything I could adequately describe.

As we arrived in our cab at the Beach Rotana hotel we were directed through a separate entrance into the grand ballroom complex. In the lobby before the outer room May removed her head covering. Eman took off her black long sleeved covering. Around us women began removing their Abaylas and head coverings. Revealed to us were the most gorgeous women you can imagine. Long dresses that you could not believe. Bright gorgeous colors, toile ruffles, flowing long behind in the back. Most of the young girls had gorgeous figures, waists smaller than I have ever seen complimented curvaceously on top. We laughed as we saw many had their cell phones tucked into their cleavage. Each dress was over the top, uniquely decorated and adorned. Their long black hair elegantly piled high on top or cascading down their back. Their faces were elaborately made up which only exaggerated their own natural beauty. And each wearing a big bright welcoming smile. They looked free and happy to be together and allowed to be themselves.

As we approached the ballroom a gauntlet of these beauties greeted us. Watching the woman in front of me for clues I bent forward and cheek pecked alternating sides these girls who welcomed me as if we were long lost relatives. We entered the ballroom and there were at least 30 tables seating 10 each on either side of the center aisle. We were escorted through the room to the very front where we were seated at a long table facing the elevated stage and runway as if we were some special honored dignitaries. Melissa and I were sure they had made a mistake and worried whether we should get too comfortable as they would surely come and move us out of the way when the real honored guests arrived. But we got to stay. May told us later that the rest of the tables were seated by family and we were placed at the "unattached" table which was great because we got to see upfront and personal all the goings on.

I sat at the end closest to the end of the runway which was a little of a challenge as I was the first one the servers approached and had to stumble through sometimes to figure out what I was supposed to do. From my seat it was entertaining to see the young women unabashedly step up on the stage and dance freely with each other to the rhythmic entrancing Arabic music playing through the room. From time to time the trill of the celebratory pigeon call was shrieked out from the crowd. (My sister will remember the first Muslim wedding we attended in Sudan, also the women's night, when this call split the air). Most of the women had elaborately designed henna tattoos running from their finger tips partially or all the way up their arms. So intricate: it must have taken hours to get those on. The jewels were blinding. Tiaras and necklaces glistening through the night. Throughout the evening the groom's relatives came by one at a time to welcome us. One of his cousins, a stunning young woman who had just flown in from London for the party, even asked us if we wanted to dance. Melissa and I joined her on the floor (refusing the stage invite) and other women gathered around us as we awkwardly wiggled our bodies trying to at least follow a beat. We were woefully unpracticed! But they were gracious just the same and I think it made everyone a little more comfortable that we would join in instead of just watch. Melissa and I were the only blonds in this room of over 300 women. These women, who often leave me feeling intimidated by their veiled secrecy and air of elegance, made us feel at home and part of a bigger sisterhood of women enjoying the freedom to be ourselves with no men around to inhibit us.

As we were seated I was approached by the first pourer offering a gold carafe of Turkish coffee poured into a little gold goblet from the tray carried by her assistant behind. This was the first of at least seven (we lost count after five) different kinds of hot beverages offered throughout the night. Each one a different and mysterious flavor. There was a cardamom infused milk, a ginger steeped tea, a thick creamy milk with fine/small caviar sized tapioca floating in it, another mysteriously spiced tea, another equally mysterious coffee. All but one were sweet and delicious.

Running down the table were small dishes of various kinds: fatoosh, pickled eggplant, something like potato salad, others I didn't even see. Immediately plates were placed before us and a procession of servers spooned onto our plates hummus, followed by tabbouleh and a few pieces of hot flat bread. Another small plate was places to the side and a large dollop of something sticky made of dates (I think) and walnuts was plopped onto it. Each of these things was delicious and it was hard not to just scarf it down. But we had been warned about how much food we would get throughout the evening and so we tried to pace ourselves. Then two women came by hoisting a pallet probably 2'x3' loaded with sweet tidbits in wrappers. There were stuffed dates, baklava, garbanzo flour cookies, and other things that had been attached to this pallet in a decorative pattern. I was the first diving into these things: the first to disturb the artistic pattern. It took some restraint not to take one of each as I wanted to taste them all! At least three more times through the evening a new pallet of more and even different sweets was brought by the table. If one of the groom's relatives was standing by she'd come over and make a suggestion about what to try. One grabbed off a treat wrapped in channel patterned foil insisting we try one of these "very good" she said. And it was. Bowls of kibbie (spiced ground meat shaped into tiny footballs) and cheese tarts were delivered.

After a few hours our plates were cleared and replaced by a bigger clean one. Silverware was replenished and then several dishes were brought out and placed on the table. There was spicy chicken on grain of some sort, an okra stew, rice pilaf, kebab, lasagna (!) and tortellini in a creamy sauce (??) and..and..and. I just can't remember it all.

That was followed by the dessert courses: trays of brownies, baklava, flan, fruit in syrup. We didn't know a second dessert course was coming: a tray of two bite petit fours, cheese cakes and other small cakes. And if that wasn't enough, then a small pot of a warm creamy coconut pudding with raisins was delivered at each place.

Sometime when all this was going on, a large chest of smoking incense was brought by our table. Instinctively I knew to take my hands and waft it to my face. The incense was brought around to every woman to self anoint. Then the elaborate containers of pure oil essence deliciously scented was brought. The first time the server took the rod out of the container and stroked it across my wrist. The next few times it came by I knew what to do and helped myself. May told us it was pure oil and not perfume as perfume usually has alcohol in it and alcohol is forbidden in Muslim culture.

The girls dancing never stopped. They were so happy and uninhibited. There were all generations of women there. At each family table I observed at least one, sometimes many more older women who did not take off their abaylas. There were pre-teens gazing longingly at the girls just a little older, dreaming of the day when they would be up there dancing. There were very little ones who seemed to not be too closely watched, often climbing up the stairs, tripping up the ladies as they stepped on the long flowing dress trains. All women of all ages not in Abayla were dressed to the nines. Some of the youngest ones, ones that were old enough to sit still at all, were heavily made up and henna tattooed. Obviously a real right of passage. There were also some little boys there. They are allowed up to age six and then they are separated from the unveiled women looking forward to the day when they will have their own wife to unveil.

About an hour into the ceremony there was great commotion and a beautiful girl in a tiered silver/grey gown was escorted down the aisle and up the length of the runway to the gold shimmering settee staged at the end. Pictures were taken. At our table we all commented on how beautiful Abdoulah's bride was (we had never seen her before). She was eventually seated with her entourage at the table opposite. I watched her with amusement as she sat with her friends, elegantly glowing. So we were quite surprised when a while later there was again great commotion and anticipation. This time the real bride made her way down the aisle. (We never did figure out who the lady we thought was the bride was). The real bride was in a white gown with a huge skirt and train that had to constantly be adjusted to allow her to walk without tripping. It took quite a while for her to make it through the room. There were Swarovsky crystals sewn throughout the dress. A diamond tiara and necklace that was blinding. May estimated the dress alone as costing well over $100,000. The bride smiled self consciously, looking just slightly terrified. She was definitely not as free as the other women at the party. From the time she came down to the time we eventually left the party she never came down from the stage. She was posed for pictures, first alone, for a very long time. Then with family and friends.

One of the bride's attendants, the only young lady we saw that had a shorter haircut and looked very westernized, came with a red velvet sack with gifts the bride had asked be delivered to us. She didn't even flinch as Melissa said "just like Santa" and I said "yes like Christmas" as these were very insensitive things to say at a Muslim celebration. Gracious of her. She delivered to each of us a different kind of eau d' toilette in a gold ribbon tied bottle. Mine is called "Famous" according to the label.

As the dessert was coming out there was a distinct change in the room. The women all began gathering their abaylas and head coverings. May translated an announcement over the speaker that a scarf had gone missing and please help to find it so that the last woman could be covered up and the groom could be presented. (Melissa and I did not cover up. We had been advised that we were not expected to. We did not get any bad looks for that. I think these women were confident enough in their own beauty not to be threatened by these comparatively plain looking visitors!). The music turned into this special call out to the groom. May translated the musical narrative. All about Abdoulah finding his bride. Then he appeared, his usual white dish dash covered by a ceremonial black panel with gold embroidery. He was accompanied by his father and grandfather on either side. Both the bride and the groom were very stoic, showing no outward emotion to seeing their gorgeous spouse appear before them. Abdoulah was taken up the stage and placed next to his bride. parents joined on each side. There were no vows or spoken parts. We learned that they were legally married up to two weeks ago as documentation was officially signed. But they are not officially wed until after the parties. The wedding is consummated after all this has occurred.

After dessert May and Eman were ready to go (it was after 1:00 AM) and so we left though Melissa and I would have been game to stick it out to the end. The large tiered wedding cake had not been cut. Not that we needed to eat the cake (we were stuffed beyond our limits) but it would have been fun to see what that was like.

Already the details of the night are fading. There was so much to soak in. But foremost in my mind is how honored I feel to be let in on this rarely seen ceremony with such welcoming grace. The sisterhood these women obviously enjoy with each other is not unlike that I have on the other side of the world with my own clan. What a gift!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

(One) Mystery Solved

Rasha, our office assistant, solved the mystery of the Sweet Hair Removal. It is a hair removal technique and it is made out of sugar and acid. She makes it at home. She described it and it sounds like a simple syrup with lemon juice. We are to take the type that we bought and knead the package until it it soft. Then you put on your leg and then pull off. She said it is better than wax. I can't wait to share how this turns out. If it really works as well as she says, why don't we know about it. How much easier that would be than going to a waxing salon! I also heard that they do this under the arms and supposedly it keeps you from sweating as much. Well this will certainly be the place to check that out. Current temperature: 108-degrees at this very moment. It will be 111 and 110 the rest of the week.

We will be needing to wax our legs....for a WEDDING! I have been here less than a week and have been invited to two weddings. I am so excited. The one we were invited to this afternoon is for the "OE" Office Expediter we use to expedite things like visas, licenses, IDs, etc. I haven't even met him yet but I am invited and I will go with Rasha and Melissa. It is Friday night (their Sunday, remember) at 9 PM somewhere locally. All I know is that the women are separated from the men and we all sit together and wait for something to happen. Now we have the difficult task of figuring out what to wear and where we will get it.

The second wedding I was invited to was from a Jordanian girl that we interviewed for a position here. She is getting married next week and after her honeymoon may start with us. We haven't actually offered her the position yet. But that didn't stop her from enthusiastically inviting us to her wedding. I hope to go to that one too. It will be different than the one this week as I understand they do things differently in the different regions of the Middle East.

Makes me wonder about how they plan for these weddings. Typically I'm used to the brides carefully planning and culling the guest list to fit the size of the venue or the budget. Apparently that isn't a consideration here.

I will happily bring you along on this adventure through the blog.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Taste of our Life?

Shopping at the grocery store can be quite entertaining. Take milk, for example. Let's try camel's milk. With dates!

"Camelicious" (not)

(PS: Melissa wants me to tell you that this picture was taken after one of our P90X workouts, which is why we look a little sloppy and dishelved)

We took the dare. Just one taste. Here's the verdict: camel's milk is, well, interesting. A little sour. Here disguised by the sweetness of dates. Now that we've got that over with, we'll find another challenge. The grocery store is full of them.

What about this: Is it candy or a hair removal solution?

You will notice it is made by a sweets company. Ingredients are honey and citric acid. We'll let you know what we find out.

And this is the box of feta I got at the bakery market. It was pretty creamy for feta. More like a salty cream cheese. Couldn't figure out how to get it out of the box other than digging in with my hands.

Those are a few discoveries of the day. I'm sure tomorrow, and the next, and the next will hold many more.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Learning Arabic

I am starting with the numbers. Doing OK with those. Just have to remember that the seven looking thing is a six, the three looking thing is a four, two and three look the same from a distance, a zero is a five. Maybe I should find Sodoku in Arabic. I practice with license plates as they have the Arabic numbers on one side and “English” letters on another.

I was in my first meeting with a client, helping them do some roadway planning. We were talking about diverting traffic. I said “you could put a pork chop here to get the traffic to go this way.” One of the consultants at the table said with a twinkle in his eye “you may want to do away with the term “pork chop” here.

The other day Melissa and I went to pick up Hicham (Transpo’s Principal who just moved his family here a before I came). It was the first time I’d seen him since I had arrived. As he was approaching the car I asked Melissa “how do you say “hello” in Arabic?” She said she didn’t know. I suddenly remembered an Arabic greeting I had learned in Sudan. As he gets in the car I look at him and say “Masalama.” Oops. That is what you say for “good bye.” He laughed and gave me credit for trying. Apparently the story has been shared with the rest of the Transpo crew working out of the municipal office. I am bringing entertainment to the team.

I got yelled at for touching a crab in the market.

I found the pork room at Spinney’s which is the British super market. I felt conspicuous as we made our way to it in the back corner of the store. I have never ever seen so much pork product in one place. I passed on the pork trotters. Melissa believes those are hooves since that’s what pigs trot around on. I think they are from another part of the pig. We will look at them more closely next time. There were marshmallows and Pop Tarts in the pork room. Weird. Is there pork in those? (should I be typing “are there pork in those?” )

I bought a cauliflower head. It was the equivalent of $7 U.S. That better be damn good. Still no good fennel to be found. Produce will be hit or miss. But the cucumbers and tomatoes seem to be plentiful and not too dear.

I will try to upload some pictures tonight. It takes a really long time to do with these connections. This is all I have time for right now.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Adventure Which Is Dubai

Entering Dubai for the first time is like waking up in the future from an induced coma after travelling to another planet: sort of like what it would be like to arrive in Avatar. If that were possible. The road from Abu Dhabi is a huge eight lane freeway that cuts through the scrub brush speckled desert. There are a few little areas with buildings with odd little businesses on the ground floor. Mostly it is this large road seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Illumination (street lighting) is generously provided the entire 120 kilometers (75 miles) between the two cities, something typically unheard of in the states where highway miles between towns is highly unusual and unaffordable.

As you near Dubai an impressive futuristic looking light rail station kicks off the elevated travel way that runs parallel to the highway and into the City with stations located frequently throughout. Groupings of office towers push out through the lower building landscape of the older city. If you’ve ever flown over Seattle and looked down at the City you know how contained her skyscrapers are. Each of these groupings of buildings poking up through Dubai appears to be like a downtown Seattle. Only buildings of a much bigger variety, some of which are very strange. Many look like they were the result of some architect’s odd dream come to life. Among them, the world's tallest structure, the 828 m (2,717 ft) tall Burj Khalifa with 160 habitable floors. By comparison, the Empire State Building is 443 meters (1,453 ft) tall with about half the habitable floors. The building gained the official title of "Tallest Building in the World" at its opening in January 2010. It is taller than any other man-made structure ever built.

This building is the backdrop to the fountain by the Abu Dhabi Mall, which is the largest mall in the world with a total area of 12.2 million square feet. After 4 PM there is an hourly water show at the fountain that is said to rival the show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (which I haven’t seen). In fact I heard somewhere that the head Shiek of Dubai was in Vegas and saw the Bellagio show and contracted with the developer of that show to build one just like it only bigger and better in Dubai. The show is set to Arabian music and is quite spectacular with the Burj Khalifa in the background.

My flat mate, Melissa, is an awesome driver and took on the tangle of roads and honking drivers with great confidence. When we missed our exits she just went around and around and ended up where we needed to be. In the parking garage at the mall they have a nifty system of lights high above each space that are green when empty and go red when a car is in the space. This makes it easy to find the empty spaces. It’s a great system and I wish we had in our large garages which would reduce the circling around we so often have to do.

We came into the mall by this incredible fountain that extended down from the highest level with life size metal sculptures of men diving through the water down toward the bottom. The water roared past all floors creating a stunning statement. We wandered through the mall, as interested by the people walking through as we were with what was in the shop windows. There was a “gold souk” area with high end jewelry shops. People were actually in looking at things. Most of the shops elsewhere in the mall, were very shi-shi without much merchandise on display but you could tell what they did have was very high end. Most of the shops didn’t have many, if any, people actually inside shopping and the shopkeepers were sitting or standing around looking very bored. We had to be careful about showing too much interest in what was in the windows as we didn’t want to let down the sales people that looked ever hopeful for a potential sale.

At this mall we saw more people dressed less conservatively than in the Abu Dhabi malls. Also many more kawadjas. And also many women in Abayas. In fact just as we were getting ready to leave the mall at the end of the day we noticed lots of activity near the fashion runway in the center of the mall. So we stood nearby and watched all the excitement and obviously important people that were seated in the cordoned area near the runway. Many large TV cameras were set up and a most elegant woman in a gold lined Abaya was interviewed on camera by many of them. We finally figured out it was an Abaya fashion show. It was quite amusing to see the thin tall models strutting their stuff in these fashionably decorated black flowing garments. Unlike real Emerati women, their head wraps were piled high up top their heads and most gowns had high slits showing their skinny long legs, which were in clad in black leggings. I bet these high fashion models turn around and go to France to model tiny little swimming suits and strapless dresses. One day they will look back and tell about the wild assignment they had early in their career to model fully covered in Dubai.

In another part of the mall, the high fashion section, thousands of strands of clear wire laden with white fabric butterflies extend to the bottom floor from the top levels of the mall. Just about impossible to capture on film you have to see it to believe it. The mall also has an aquarium. While you have to pay to actually go into the aquarium there is a huge tank that is exposed to the interior of the mall. People gather around to see the sharks and fish going by and the divers inside feeding them. Melissa said that she heard the front of the tank is the largest solid piece of plexiglass ever made. Apparently they had a leak a while ago and it was quite a mess. I can only imagine.

While there we went to the food court which was just plain overwhelming with “fast food” from just about every country you can name. After wandering around for some time I opted for the Greek to get a gyro but when I got to the window was informed that they had no gyros at the time. After wandering around again for a long time I finally just opted out and went for the McDonalds chicken sandwich. I can’t believe I picked McDonalds with all those choices but that’s what I did. It tasted good too. With all the international food available having something from home just seemed comforting.

During the day we took a break from the mall to go see other parts of town. We were able to find our way to the waterfront where we parked and walked on the beach, putting our feet into the ocean. It didn’t feel that hot, considering the 110+ temp of the air and even hotter sand. We got somewhat close to the iconic sail building, the Burg al Dubai (burg means tower) and a few other modern marvels. I look forward to going back and seeing more. This time I was mostly in shock at what I saw and unfortunately not fast enough on the camera to try to capture it for you.

We got back to the flat as tired puppies and after a light meal of salad from our earlier grocery store purchases and herbed flat bread from the bakery down the block were in bed and soundly sleeping in no time. Also purchased from the little store attached to the bakery, feta in a little box (like a juice box) which was delicious in the salad, and mango juice. Another end to another dream world day.

Friday, July 9, 2010

First Friday

Fancy Dates from Welcome basket atop My New Ikea Throw

Add on to the last post: I forgot to mention that Melissa had put together for me a lovely welcome basket filled with local treats: some fresh flat bread, a can of hummus, some pistachio halvah, Nutella, Ketchup flavored Lays (really?), and a most elegant box of assorted dates (including lemon stuffed, nut stuffed, coconut crusted, chocolate brushed and a bunch of others). I also should mention that I had a lovely decompression soak in the tub before crawling into my freshly changed sheets. It was a lovely end to a new start.

Emirates Palace Hotel from Night Stroll


My first full day started early, with a mystical sounding call to prayer echoing over the air-conditioning sound in my room. Still groggy from the Ambien, I went back to sleep having very strange dreams until I officially woke up a few hours later. I decided I’d join Manuel and his friend Tim for church at the Evangelical Community Church. Tim picked us up near the flat and we drove about 15 minutes to the church, located in a non-descript neighborhood. Let’s just say that the churches have not had the investment that the mosques have. But a church is about the people, not the building, right? We arrived after the start and I was happy to hear some of my favorite church music played (Amazing Grace/Chains are gone, Come Thou Font, etc.) I think I must have been a little overtired because I almost dozed off several times during the sermon. During announcements they asked any newcomers to introduce themselves so I bravely did with the microphone brought to me. Several people introduced themselves to me after the service. Then I talked Tim and Manuel into looking for an open coffee shop. We ended up going to the Marina Mall which was mostly closed down until 10:30 or so. But we did find an open Starbucks (expensive here but worth it this morning). We went to an electronics store where I bought a blow-dryer and a grocery store where I found limes and tonic water.

Then they took me on a little drive to see the Corniche (the drive along the waterfront) on the way home. Back at the ranch Melissa and I made a nice lunch out of salami and cheese from Holland and a good cantaloupe from the market. When the noon call to prayer came I watched the progression of the prayer formation at the mosque outside my bedroom window. Melissa has done a fantastic job capturing that on her blog here, if you care to follow along. (Read all her blog posts starting here if you have the time. She's done an excellent job a describing some of the more fascinating day to day things about Abu Dhabi). After lunch we caught a cab for the Marina Mall (I will be talking a lot about the malls I guess. This is where we go to walk and people watch. It’s just too hot to do much else during the day right now. It will be different after the hot(test) season I hope). The cab ride was only about $4 US for the two of us. Considering how hard it is to find parking for the car and how cheap the cabs are it makes sense to take a cab whenever possible.

The mall was abuzz with people from all over the world. Very few “kawadjas” like us. Lots of Emiratis and others of Muslim descent. I was fascinated to see all the variations on the abaya. Many of the women with children were accompanied by what I assume are their maids, carrying the packages or keeping track of the children. Many couples strolling together, the men in their long white jalabeyas and headdresses, seeming very at peace being together. I don’t know how they do it. I can attest that going to the mall with Mark was never peaceful nor enjoyable for either of us. But this is what they do here. There were also many young women together in their abayas with their faces beautifully and elaborately made up. Very, very exotic looking. Beautiful people, really. I hope that during the time here I might get to know a few and find out more about what it’s like to live “under the veil.” The young boys also travel in groups looking very much like young princes.

We saw the ice-skating rink at the mall. The ski slope here we could see but apparently it’s never actually been opened: it was snowless. And not all that exciting though it shot out of view under the skating rink so maybe it went down into the lower levels. We wandered into several areas of the mall. It is huge and will take many visits to see all areas. I was amazed at the number of lingerie stores and the scantiness of the outfits displayed in many of the windows: beautiful dresses that were sleeveless and sometimes strapless: things I don’t know where you could wear around here as all women are encouraged to keep their shoulders and knees covered. There was lots of bling. Several familiar stores: even a Seattle’s Best Coffee! A Forever 21, Black and White, and lots and lots of new stores. Several Abaya stores. Again, I was fascinated by the women in Abayas. There is something kind of amusing about seeing a women fully covered (including a full face veil) holding a cell phone to her covered ear.

After some serious walking and people watching we made our way to the two stores we needed to pick things up in: Ikea and the grocery store. Believe it or not, I bought a throw blanket at Ikea. Who would have thought my first important purchase in this hot country would be a blanket? But the flat gets quite cool with the air conditioning and I just felt like I wanted something cozy for nesting. So I have a bright orange throw to cuddle up on the bright gold furniture on. I am making this my home (insert smiley face here). I also picked up some wooden hangers so I could unpack my suitcases.

At the grocery store we checked out many sections. We were forced to sample fresh baklava (really, he thrust them in our hands). The dry goods were pretty amazing: nuts and dates of all kinds. And lots of spices. Melissa and I laughed because she had advised me to bring spices because they seemed quite expensive here. In hindsight she realized she hadn’t been converting the dirham to dollars and in reality they are pretty reasonable and abundant here. Oh well. I have a good collection for my new place whenever I settle in. The produce was fairly decent. Some things looking very good. Others, like the fennel, not so much. Once you’ve selected your produce you have to take it to a special counter to have it weighed and tagged. Not as complicated as in Italy, and no plastic gloves required. We stocked up on produce and yogurt and sherry wine vinegar. Will have that to look forward to sometime soon.

Came back to the flat and unpacked suitcases now that I had hangers to put things on. After some settling in and catching up on office gossip Manual came over for gin and tonic happy hour, apparently a real treat for us as liquor is not obtainable on the regular market. Then we took a cab back to Marina Mall and at an Iranian restaurant. Had really good flat bread and cheese and herbs and pickled vegetables brought to us before we ordered. We split a mixed seafood grill and grilled lamb. The seafood wonderful, especially the white fish and calamari. The lamb not so much. The meal cost us each about $35. Not bad at all. Though would have loved a nice glass of wine to go along. We decided to stroll a bit towards the Corniche after dinner. We ducked into the lovely Havana Grill so Manuel could get dessert and we could get water on the way. Then we strolled for maybe a mile and a half before we decided we were way too hot and my feet hurt (wore sandals that weren’t fitting right with heat swollen feet). We flagged down a cab, driven by a very nice young Pakistani driver, and returned home. That’s when I stayed up until 1:30 writing yesterday’s blog post. And now it is 7 AM and I will officially start day #2. My iPhone is charged up so I can more easily get pictures for the blog. Will report back on Dubai later. Keep cool, my warm Seattle friends. Drink a cold beer for me. I’m still very much in the “how did I end up here and when will I awaken?” mode. This is such a very different way of life. It may take me a while to wake up and find myself here.

I've Arrived

Dinner at the Lebanese Flower


I'm in Abu Dhabi. Soaking it all in. Still in that dream world where everything just seems a little off. Here's the whirlwind summary to catch you up:

Flight to Amsterdam: no sleep but got to watch "Date Night" which I've been wanting to catch in the theaters at home but never got around to. Also watched a great Indian movie with subtitles "Paa"...highly recommend. Sat next to Liam who was on his way to Ireland to visit his grandmother. We got very intimate. I couldn't help myself: I tickled his feet under the blanket. Before you get all excited for me I have to tell you the Liam is 4-years old and would have talked to me the whole way if I hadn't worn out and put my earphones in.

The two-and-a-half layover in Amsterdam I spent walking the kinks out. Stocked up on gin at the duty free and also salami's (and cheese) at the Holland shop. The salamis were an after thought due to the unavailability of pork product here in UAE. The gin and salami were very happily received on this end. (Note to future visitors: salami and gin are good presents).

Amsterdam to Abu Dhabi, got a good snooze in (thank you Ambien!) and arrived on time, fairly rested. My welcome team had gotten stuck behind a multi-truck accident on the airport road so I arrived to no welcoming committee. Clearing customs was so easy: the guy didn't even ask the purpose of my visit. When I came out and there was no one there to greet me I talked myself out of a panic and settled in to watch the "crowd." The airport is not that big: not for a capital of a country. Immediately I notice the dress: most women are in abaya of varying degrees of privacy (abaya are the (usually) black gowns the Muslim women wear). Some women are completely veiled with no visible eye holes. Some just slits for eyes. Most have their full faces showing. I find the fully veiled and just slits for eyes un-nerving.

As I am going over options in my head about where to go and how to get there because my ride has not shown (I had a great Maguiver plan started) Melissa and Manuel come running down the hallway. When we step out of the airport building I am nearly knocked to my knees by the hot heat. Very much like the steam sauna Julie and I had at Olympus Spa. Supposedly it's already cooling down as it's after 8 PM but I am impressed with the heat none the less.

We drive through the City and I soak in the traffic, the lights, the "Arabic strip mall" feeling of the first floor retail in all the buildings we pass. Soon we are at our building and cirle around a few blocks until we find a space to land the car. I had heard about the creative parking in Abu Dhabi and am still impressed with what I see. Cars nosed in wherever there is (just barely) adequate clearance. We find a place within a half block of our flat, fortunately, as we have big bags to move in this hot temperature.

We take the elevator to our flat (floor 13 of the 15 floor building). Transpo has two flats on this floor. Currently they are "the boys' flat" and "the girls' flat." Melissa lets us in to the girls' which will be my homebase for the next month or so. Rose is on vacation in the states for a few more weeks so for now I have my own room and Melissa has the other. The flat is quite decent. I'll post pictures in a future post (haven't taken many yet, and besides, I hear uploading the pictures takes a lot of time and if I stop to wait for that I will surely pass out from exhaustion). The whole flat has ceilings 10+ feet high. Nicely airconditioned (which I find out all indoor spaces, including cars, are at all times), whitewashed walls. Large living room with big bright gold overstuffed furniture, a large flatscreen TV (with sattelite cable), a simple dining room set and really, really tacky art work (think hotel art) on the walls. There are two bathrooms (one with tub), both with bidets and with these spiggot hoses (I mean like the sink spayers with the kitchen sinks) next to the toilet. There has been much speculation among the team as to what people do with those hoses. I will have to ask a native once I get to know one well enough. Picture to come. The kitchen is small: fortunately the stove has a panel that comes down over the burners to provide extra counter space when not cooking. There's a decent amount of cupboard space. However I can't reach most of it as they go all the way to the ceiling, which as I noted earlier, is really high. There's a funny looking clothes washing machine and a very small deck with just enough room for a garbage pail and a clothes rack. Melissa and I were speculating if you could grown a tomato plant or herbs...something we might try some day. I looked around and said "too bad there's no dishwasher." To which Melissa said "yes we do. Maid comes every other day." That will take some getting used to but I am willing to learn.

The two bedrooms are decent sized with lots of closet space. Of course I can only use about half of the space. I can barely reach the hanging rods of the lower half. There could be all kinds of things in the top but I'd never know. Have no idea how folks reach the cabinets that high.

After we drop off our bags we walked about a block and a half to the "Lebanese Flower" restaurant. Had a delicious meal of hummus, babaganoush (eggplant dip), fatoush (a salad of tomato, cucumber, herbs and fried bread) and mixed grill. Absolutely delicious. I will not starve in this country. We are seated in the upper level of the restaurant, the "family level" and adjacent to us is a family of about 20. A little girl at the table notices us (we look very different than most folks around here) and stands at the end of our table and stares at us. The whole meal. This seems fine with the parents: we are good entertainment for a restless child. When we are done she grabs a hand full of leaves off the houseplant nearby and tosses it in our direction. This does get her parents attention and she if finally called back to the table. I forget what drink I ordered but Melissa ordered a "cocktail" which in this Muslim (dry) country means a beautiful looking fruit concoction made with avocado, mango and other fruits, There are a few almonds and other tidbits on the bottom. Something I will have to order in the future. This yummy dinner comes to the equivalent of $150 Durhams, divided three ways that's about $13.

After dinner we walk to the Al Wadah mall, across the street (using the underground passage) to get some cash from the ATM (it worked! phew). We wandered around a bit so I could see what it was like, including a tour of LuLu, the grocery store. I'll save a description of that for a future post. From there we returned to our flat through the sauna that is my unairconditioned world now. Downed an Ambien just to assure a good night's sleep and made it through until the call to prayer shocked me into "where the heck am I" awakening sometime early this morning.

It's been a full day since then, which I will give details on later, maybe tomorrow before we leave for Dubai. It's been a full and pleasant day. I am still in shock that I have moved here, but hopeful that it will be survivable, maybe even thrivable. Sweet dreams to all.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Journey Begins

It is 11:30 AM, July 7. The journey has begun. Melinda and Jill drove me to the airport. And came in and waited with me as long as they could. Even through the security line. But eventually we had to say goodbye. It was hard.
The goodbyes have been hard. I will miss my tribe. Though I am going on a big adventure, and though we will be able to keep close through the satellites and Ethernet, the distance (and time difference) will be hard. I will miss my tribe.
Thank you to each and every one of you who reached out to me, who supported me, who shed tears with me, who put on a brave face with me, who said "I am proud of you" to me. I will look forward to staying in touch over the Ethernet until we are back together again, in the States or somewhere in between.

Over the last several months I have been in a bit of denial. Busy with the business of getting things wrapped up at work and in my home. Have not really been looking more than one foot ahead down the road.

But I am in the airport now. Reality is hitting. I am sending myself up with a double Tangqurey (sp?) and tonic. And some Nachos to wash it down. It is not even noon yet. Creating my new reality as I go along.

Not sure how easy it will be to get gin and tonic in A.D. And it will be freakin' hot. So I am starting now. Just in case.