Saturday, October 30, 2010

Here vs. There

Saturday morning:
Around 4:30 AM with a call to prayer from the Mosque outside my window. A slow mournful song. To remind my Muslim neighbors that they have little time to do their abolitions (ritual cleansings) and prayers before sunrise. Since this is my day off (we have Friday and Saturday off), I roll over in bed with a sigh, knowing I don't have to get up for a while. I fall back to sleep for some crazy dreams about polar bears and ice-skating. I believe this is a result of Melissa and my current pastime of turning up the air-conditoining to full blast, wrapping up in blankets and watching Christmas DVDs. We miss the seasonal change at home.

Around 4:30 AM I am asleep in my cottage loft. Satchmo snuggled down under the comforter, not the sheets, dozing away, or not.

Around 8:00 AM I throw on my jeans, short sleeve shirt, flip-flops and head out for coffee and Manakeesh. I leave the air-conditioned coolness of the lobby, as the Chinese doorman says "Good morning Ma'am Sir". In the lobby is our new company driver, Hussein, from Lebanon. He started this week. Does not speak much English. When I saw him yesterday morning as he arrived at the office to drive a visiting co-worker to see a desert Oasis, I told him he did not need to come in today. That he could come on Sunday morning to the office for work. Apparently he did not understand and I feel badly that he has taken the 1.5 hour bus ride into the City to work on a day he doesn't have to. (His salary is standard. He is on call 24/7 so not working today will not cost him income. But it will cost him three hours on his day off to commute from and to the lower rent area where the laborers tend to live.) I offer to drive him home. He looks shocked and embarrassed and waves me away. I will have Rasha explain to him in the morning that he doesn't typically work weekends unless we have special needs.

Around 8 AM I lie in bed and look out the window at the early morning sun breaking over the water of Lake Sammamish. This time of year I imagine there are no leaves on the trees and the view is beautiful. I would head down my spiral stair to the kitchen where I would make my own Latte.

A little after 8:00 AM I walk out my building, having sent off the driver, and aim towards Costa Coffee. The temperature at this time is in the low nineties and it feels fine. Feels doable given that it was well over 110-degrees this time of day when I first arrived. Though it is warm I cannot see clouds in the sky. Cloud scouting is rare due to the layer of fog usually present. We are right at the ocean. In the Middle East. Blue sky and clouds are a rare treat. The humidity rarely gets below 80-percent. My sunglasses fog up usually as I step outside. But I notice this morning that I am no longer surprised by the temperature change leaving the building. I guess this is what you call getting acclimated.

The garbage truck is wedging between the cars parked down the middle of the street, trying to empty the large dumpsters on the corner. The stench of the garbage that has been simmering in the Middle Eastern heat is part of City living. In the City the nose is constantly assaulted by clouds of aroma: leaking sewer lines; "ripe" laborers as they pass by; incense wafting out of small dress shops; curries bubbling on burners of tiny restaurants; strongly perfumed women and men (there is some popular men's perfume that has a very chemical scent which is close to moth balls with ammonia), and; garbage dumpsters. I dodge dripping air conditioner units, pass by feral kittens stretched out on the tops of cars, and gingerly step around or over places in the "sidewalks" where the bricks have been upended leaving a sandy hole filed in with cigarette butts and rocks. While the sidewalks are in horrible disrepair there really isn't much garbage as the city has employed many laborers to patrol everywhere and pick up garbage. But they have their work cut out for them with the cigarette butts and candy wrappers as people just toss down those types of things. They know they will be picked up after.

I arrive at Costa's coffee, a modern coffee shop and Starbuck's biggest rival here. Though the shop is modern and clean, smoking is allowed inside. At this time in the morning about eight tables are filled, all with men, half in dish-dash, speaking Arabic. The others with single westerners on laptops. All of them are smoking. I order coffee from the nice young Philipino with whom I'm familiar. I tell her I want the largest cup for a skinny vanilla latte. She says they have no largest cup (they have been out for a few weeks now). The cost is 24 dirhams (about $6.50 US). This is one of the few food/beverage offerings that is more expensive than in the US. I leave the Costa shop with my procured latte in hand for the next part of my stroll. I love the Costa coffee cups by the way. They are a textured cardboard with wavy indentations that make it easy to hold. I like the cups and the taste of the coffee better than Starbucks. The only advantage to Starbucks is that there is no smoking inside. I digress....back to stepping outside with my latte in hand...

I walk outside for the three block stroll to the Lebanese bakery on the opposite side of my office/apartment building. I go past the fire station, around the corner, past our car that is parked along the curb. It was a good night for parking yesterday I guess. The car is on the curb, not far from the Mosque. Parking in this neighborhood, like most neighborhoods in Abu Dhabi is horrible. Once the curb spots are full a new line of parking forms down the middle of the streets leaving barely enough room for cars to squeeze by on either side. Aisle parked cars fold in their mirrors so that the passing traffic can clear them. At all corners and right up to the driveways cars wedge in. There is no "clear zone" from the intersections and drives. If there is any extra radius at the corners you will see cars doubled up. The driver of the exterior car leaves his mobile number on the dashboard so that the inside car can call the driver of the exterior car if he needs to get out. Cars are parked up on sidewalks, where there are sidewalks. Often, early in the morning or late at night you will hear drivers pounding and pounding on their horns. That is for wedged in drivers to try to get attention of the "wedgees" to move their cars if a mobile number hasn't been left or if someone isn't answering the call.

....back to my walk. I pass our car and cross in front of the Mosque. Though this is not an official prayer time (there are five daily) there is an assortment of about a dozen pairs of sandals on the Mosque stairs. Always there are sandals on the steps. There are apparently always some people in the Mosque praying. I round the corner to cross the garbage truck again who has made it this far along in the morning rounds. The stroll this time of the morning is nice as there is very little traffic out and, as I mentioned, the temperature is tolerable.

I arrive at the Lebanese bakery. Hussein, our driver, is in front visiting with someone. I am glad to see he at least has gotten some breakfast from a bakery of his country of origin and has found someone he knows to talk to. We nod at each other and I enter in. I take my place in line behind a father holding his daughter and a woman with head covering on. The men behind the counter are so friendly and smile as I say "Salam Allecoom" (Good morning). I practice my Arabic "Min Fadlak. Bidee itned manakeesh cheese, olive and vegetable" (please. I want two flatbreads with cheese olive and vegetables....obviously I haven't learned cheese olives and vegetables yet). They would understand me in English, no problem. But they like that I am practicing my Arabic. I wait as I see them take the bread that has just freshly come out of the big open oven, put cheese and some olives on it and slide it back into the oven. In just a few moments they pull it out of the oven and place cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh basil onto the warm treat. They are placed onto paper and folded in half. Securely wrapped and placed into a paper bag that is put then into a plastic bag with handles. I hand them a 20 dirham note. He asks if I have a 1 dirham coin as the total is 11 dirhams for the two ($3.00). As I am getting out the change the other guy behind the counter waves me off and tells the other to just give me 10 dirhams back. They want to give me a discount. So I have procured breakfast for Melissa and me for a total of $2.72 US. It is fresh and delicious and made with kindness. "Shokran" (Thank you) I say. "Masalama" as I walk out the door.

As I walk back to our flat I duck inside the small little everything shop to see if they have some onions for the soup we will make tonight. I find some decent ones and a nice melon of some sort. The total is 9 dirhams ($2.45). I wait in line. Some passing man (Pakistani?) says "Hello. How are you madam?" as another man grabs my vegetables to weigh them. He comes back and says the cost. I hand him my money and he gives me my change. I do not have to wait in line with the others. They are doing some kind of other business at the counter that has to do with receipts and forms and something complicated that my limited Arabic can't understand.

On the homestretch, I walk back along the row of buildings leading to my flat. The carpenter is busy in his tiny shop, sawing away at a board. I look in and see that he is barefoot in his carpentry shop. He also has no safety goggles on. The dress shop has the usual five or six men crammed into the tiny air-conditioned space. The laundry shop is full of steam as they press the sheets and shirts that are dropped off. The three cell phone shops are open for business (seems every block has multitudes of cell phone shops). The waterpipe store is buzzing with the tobacco sales. I arrive and the Chinese doorman says "welcome Ma'am sir". On the 13th floor the smell of fish curry (at 9 AM) comes from a neighbor's flat. I am home. Ready to start the weekend day.

Homemade latte in my commuter mug in hand, Satchmo on leash, I head out my door. I imagine I am assaulted by a chill in the air as I leave my heated house, reminding me it is fall. I go out my gate and down the hill. My neighbor Ron is out washing his car and greets me. The air smells like wood burning stoves and rotting leaves. Satchmo tries to lunge after birds and rabbits as we head out along the road, devoid of cars and traffic this time on a weekend morning. I walk past the treed protected area, but disgusted with the piles of fast food wrappers, empty beer cans and plastic bottles that people have tossed out the window of their moving cars. I tell myself I should come back and pick up the garbage but I never do. I may cross paths with a few runners and bikers and others out walking dogs. Maybe a car or two will drive by. There are no shops within walking distance to buy breakfast. No assaults to my nose. No sounds of chatter. Just the sound of my iPod playing an episode of "This American Life" or "Radiolab" for my entertainment. As we near home Satchmo pulls me up the hill. I enter my cottage. I am home. Ready to start my weekend day.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What's that you say?

Understanding people who speak English as a second language can be challenging. Especially if their native tongue is something that is spoken fast, like Arabic. Or Chinese or Farsi or something. It is especially difficult to understand them on the phone. The other thing that compounds it is that there are about five male names that it seems like 80% of the male population shares. Omar. Abdullah. Hesham. Ahmed. Alli. There are spelling variations and some minor pronounciation variations. Like Akhmed, which is ahmed with a throat clearing gesture in the middle. I get a phone call from one of these guys and it is really, really difficult. Not only do I not know who it is but I can't figure out what they are saying and what the call is pertaining to. It takes a bit of conversation to put it together. They call on my cell phone number because the cell phone is the number that most people use since the land line is often answered by someone who is even harder to understand than the person you are calling. So we use cell phones, no voice mail and caller ID I haven't figured out.

When taking down a phone number or email address over the phone I often have to have them spell it using phoenetic spelling, such as "T as in Tango" in order to make sure I have it right. I have to do the same thing when leaving my email address since they seem to have trouble understanding me as well.

I was trying to get an Indian's contact email over the phone. He started spelling:

"S as in star"
"O as in Ostrich"
"B as in ballot"
"B as in ballot"
"I as in ice"
"L as in lamb"
"at somethingorother dot com"

So I sent the email to him. It came back undeliverable. I got to looking at something that had his name on it. Soppil. Apparently B as in Ballot means P as in Pallet? Why would he pick pallet for the P word? Especially if he can't pronounce P and Ballot is a word too?

It's always something. Be habby!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wiped out...

If I weren't in my fifties and celebate for, well, too long, I'd swear I was in my first tri-mester. I am wiped out. The kind of tired that fights the urge to pass out every moment I am not in motion. I fell asleep in Arabic class last night. I fell asleep again right in the middle of looking at housing options in Dubai on the internet with Melissa. The only thing I crave as much as sleep is coffee. My mind can't even go in circles. The kind of tired that comes in the first tri-mester. Too tired to blog. Sorry for the kind of post that will put you to sleep. But while you are at it, please log a few zzzzs for me!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On my mind...

  • See that writing up there? I am learning Arabic. Melissa and I host a weekly Meet Up group in our office where Sam teaches us beginner's Arabic. I can now greet you (for several times of the day), say good bye, ask where you are from and what your name is. I can also answer all those questions. And now I can write the letter "A". It's fun to learn. A bit of a stretch for this old brain. The locals are happy that we try at least a little.

  • Not all flatmates are created equal. This "gift" was left in my garbage can last night. Let me explain. There are three of us in the company two bedroom apartment. I have a single bed in the living/dining room which I really don't mind. Last night one of my flatmates asked if we were going to be home in the evening because her friend's parent's were in town and wanted to fix her dinner in HER flat. OK, we made plans to be scarce so she could have dinner in our place. We went out. No big deal. We do that a lot anyway. But we were tired so didn't stay out real late. Got home. The family was there. Flatmate makes no introductions. We dissapear into M's bedroom. A few minutes later the door closes. We wait and hear no sounds so venture out. We find the kitchen a horrendous mess. Every dish dirty. Nothing washed. The aforementioned flat mate has an attitude that we have a maid and she can deal with any mess we leave for her. M and I always try to take care of our messes at least a bit. Anyway, this morning I wake to an awful smell in my bedroom. The above is what I find in my garbage can. Thanks so much! Sometimes I feel I am back in college. And not in a good way.

(Post script: the maids did the dishes. The stack is up to the ceiling(!) And unfortunately there are fish scales on about half of them so we get to rewash. Oh happy day!)

  • I had a date this week. With a young handsome foreigner. "Cougar material" M described him. We had a delicious dinner at a seafood restaurant where we sat side by side looking at the water. There was a particularly funny moment when I mentioned that my father was a professor and I asked him if he knew what "entemologist" was. When I explained he "studies insects" the guy chocked on his water. He asked "what is it exactly about sex does your father study." Studies insects...studies in sex...I guess they sound similar. We had a nice drink in Trader Vic's afterwards where we watched good salsa dancers and hookers at the bar looking for business. Then by cab he dropped me off home. It was romantic, safe and a nice way to spend the evening. Go Cougs!

  • I spent three days at a Middle East Parking Symposium. I am by nature an introvert and so these kinds of things are not typically easy for me. Add in the factor that I am one of maybe four women at the show and the other women are all positioned with co-workers who are men and easing them into the crowd. Many of the men are Middle-eastern and not approachable. I did meet a few (see above note on being a Cougar), walked away with a new project, made some important contacts. But it was otherwise a difficult, uncomforatable three days. I miss working at home where people are generally much more approachable.

  • There's been a transition inside me. I have moved from "newbie" to host. Acceptance is the best word to describe it. I am no longer a fragile newcomer filled with anxiety and grieving for what I left behind. I am just filled with anxiety. And grieving for what I left behind. But busy with the business of trying to make sure others are supported and dealing with their own fragility and shock from their arrival. Being put in that position forced me to move along. I'm more resigned and committed to make this the best I can within the limitations that I have. It's a process. I am proceding.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Good morning, Sir"....

.... the doorman rushes to get his greeting out as I run outside to try to catch a cab. I wonder when I will no longer think it is funny that I am often addressed in pigeon English as "Sir." I hope never. Those funny things keep me going. Those of the working class that know a little more English usually address me as "Madams" (Plural, but right gender). I always look around to see if they are addresing me? OK. I am in my fifties. But I do not feel I am a "Madam." Yet.

The doorman is Chinese. He looks like Mau T'se Tung in green work uniform. He is Chinese, working for an Egyptian boss, with a Filipino crew, in an Arabic speaking country, serving British, German, French, American, African (Maybe Nigerian?), Indian and Pakistani Tenants. I am honored that he greets me with "Good morning" even if I am called "Sir."

Less than 20% of the population in the UAE are indigenous: the Emeratti. They are the heirs to the oil based wealth of this country. The men dress in the long white "dish dash" with white head covering fastened on with a black ring with long cords running down their backs. When they are at a desk or sometimes out with friends they tuck the long folds from their head covering back. A modified "flying Nun" look. At the front, where a tie might be they sport a three or four inch length of intricately woven white cloth that is the same color of the dish dash. I was told that this is how you can tell they are Emeratti as lots of other men from other countries dress similarly, but without the tale tale woven piece.

The working class are often here to make money to send back to their home countries. Our maid, for example, is from the Philipines. She is here on a contract. She gets one short visit home after two years. She left a young daughter at home in the care of relatives. Her eyes tear up when we ask her. So we don't ask her often. She is always so cheery and positive. She works extra jobs on her hours off. I have seen others be very dismissive to her as well as other maids and taxi drivers. That so rubs me the wrong way. But then again, sometimes I find myself so frustrated trying to communicate something that I think is simple. That should be obvious (in my humble opinion). And they don't get it and they don't get it (though all the time nodding "yes") that I end up getting short as well. I am not my best self at those moments.

I often try to talk to the cab drivers to find out a little bit about where they are from. This isn't always possible as some have extremely limited English. Then I just smile and ride in silence. But most try. Most seem really surprised when you ask where they are from. I think not too many passengers care. They just yell with impatience. Sometimes they will ask me if I am here for big money contract (as they rub their fingers together with one hand). Or they assume I am a teacher. There are many western women here teaching. Cab rides are very cheap and most locals or people who have been here a long time give them a 1 dirham tip for each ride. A dirham is worth about $0.30 US. They are always so grateful when I round up the tip and say keep the change. That's maybe a dollar tip or so. I fantasize about handing them a 20 or even 100 dirham tip just to make their day. I probably will do that this Christmas season (and even say "Merry Christmas" even though they don't celebrate it, just because that is why I would be doing it).

Melissa and I took a very late cab ride accross town to the hotel this weekend in Dubai. We had been out celebrating a birthday. But the celebration didn't include food and with a few too many drinks in us we determined we had better put something thick and greasy in our stomachs. So we asked the cab driver to get us to a McDonalds on the way back. he sighed heavily and seemed irritated that we needed this stop. When we were a block away I asked him if he preferred hamburger or chicken sandwich. I think he thought I was teasing. I asked what drink he preffered. "Coke" he said, very softly. I said "please wait" as we got out of the cab. When we came out five minutes later with his dinner he was speachless. Actually he was speachless before (just heavy sighing) but his mood seemed better knowing he had a meal to eat. That was a feel good moment.

Life is pretty hard here for the workers. The construction workers are the ones my heart goes out to most. The temperatures are so very, very hot. Work conditions do not look safe at all (you should see the scaffolding they are climbing around on: scary). They are bused on these old gray busses that surely don't have air conditioning between the job and the labor camp where they "live". Life just cannot be very good for them. I think they are probably committed for a long time on their contracts. So sad to think about them living so far from home working such difficult jobs, living in the labor camps. Probably no, or very little, education, and so very difficult to imagine doing anything else.

I complain about the work conditions here. I admit it. It's just so very difficult. Everything. And pretty thankless. It will be a very long haul. But just an awareness of what some of these others are dealing with puts it in a good perspective.

From Sir, with love....