Saturday, 31 August 2013

I've got Geckos!

I’ve got geckos. I say ‘I’ because, since my wife left Abu Dhabi for the summer, I’ve caught 3 in the house and seen at least 3 more there. Our house was lizard-less with Carol in residence, but now they seem to think they can just move in. Maybe they sense that I need the company, and frankly, it’s a hot and lonely existence (I know; ‘cold and lonely’ reads better, but our air conditioning’s not that good).

Caught! But already lost tail
And they are small things – so small, at 2 or 3 inches long, they can come in under the front door or in through the sliding rail at the base of the patio doors. They are cute though and apparently they eat insects, so I’m told I should consider them as friends. Although, they don’t seem to be eating the ants off the kitchen countertop… …damn; those tiny hoards drive me nuts: I have to keep my sugar in the fridge!

Just like insects, geckos can walk, even run, up the walls, so they are hellishly difficult to catch.

Other than the birds, their main adversary seems to be cats, and there are lots of them. Skinny, rangy creatures, they appear to be stray. And they never miss an opportunity to speak to you with their thin, meek cries and half closed eyes, as if they’d already given up the thought that you’d feed them; or maybe it’s the effort it takes to speak through the heat.

I got a haircut yesterday. I go to a barbershop in the mall. My barber is a young Pakistani man and it seems like he cuts every hair individually, before using a razor to clean up, and talcum powder to finish. It takes about 45 minutes even though I tend to think there’s not much to cut… But, it’s probably the best, and cheapest cut I’ve ever had. I go back there regularly – whenever I can find the time. ‘Attractive’ Salon, Al Raha Mall

In Canada, I usually go to unisex salons like Mastercuts or Great Clips but they’re not available here, or I go to women’s salons. Of course, unlike the West, women’s hairdressing salons are windowless and hidden away at the edge of malls, a ‘Ladies Only’ sign on the door. Since most women do not show their fully styled hair in public, they certainly wouldn’t be seen in prep.

So, men go to barbers.

Dhow at Sunset - Gulf of Oman

Friday, 23 August 2013

It's a Dry Heat...

It looks like smoke and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s mist, especially with the wet grass under your feet as you walk through the park, seemingly with early morning dew, but your itching eyes and the thin film of dust covering everything gives it away. It’s a sandstorm, driven by the hot wind off the desert; the sand so fine you cannot see the individual grains. And the dew: that’s just the daily soaking from the sprinkler system.

I came to UAE thinking the weather was just about temperature – warm in winter, hot, very hot, in summer and that the sky was always blue. And there’s truth in that, but the wind is always a factor and the fine dust is always present. You could clean your kitchen countertop three times a day but the film of dust returns pretty quickly. The wind is so strong sometimes that the sandstorm brings a desert equivalent of a whiteout – you can barely see the car in front of you. And the strong wind brings elevated temperatures, along with the dust; it sucks the humidity out of the air. No Chinooks here, this is the Shamal…

But when the sky is clear, it’s dazzling; sunlight glinting off the sand, sea and imaginative buildings – in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. At night the biblical moon and stars seem extra crisp. The length of the day between seasons is more even (December sunrise 7am; sunset 5:30pm/ June sunrise 7:30am; sunset 7pm) and we’re closer to the equator so the sun is almost overhead all year round so, once again, as when we moved to Australia, I seem to have lost my sense of direction.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai
World's Tallest Building

Now that summer is upon us it’s the variation in humidity that is most apparent. I find I cannot guess the temperature. Every morning I go for a walk before my shower and you are generally walking out into a furnace, even at 6:30am. But similar to cold temperatures and humidity, it can feel the same at 30°C with 80% humidity as it does at 40°C with 40% humidity. But at 40°C with 80% humidity, I walk alright - straight back into the house…

Viceroy Hotel @ Yas Island F1 Track
The humidity is up and down but often hits 85% - and with the temperature in the house at 25C (thank you air conditioning!), it’s the outside of the windows that are running with water (from condensation).

And it’s hot, very hot (going above 45C most days now)! How hot?
  So hot some claim their shower has become unbearable; they turn the hot water heater off in order to use the hot water, from its insulated tank inside their air-conditioned house, as cold water. That way they can use the 'cold' water, piped in directly from outside, as hot. I haven’t gone that far but my cold water is so warm I’ve stopped
The Smartie!
drinking or even rinsing my mouth with it – I only consume water from the water cooler.
  So hot that when you flush the toilet, even in the mall, a wave of hot steam hits you where you least expect it.
  How come you guys don’t have a tan, you say? Well, it’s so hot you don’t go out in the sun for more than a few minutes at a time; stay longer and you feel your skin will crisp up and peel right off. So, nobody gets a tan here – we’re all the same shade as we were when we arrived.

I have a tan now, but I got it on my visit to Toronto in early August – it felt so cool walking along in the sun that I got sunburned in the first two days!

Friday, 16 August 2013

First Rules

You’re a non-person in UAE without a cell phone, a local cell phone. It acts as a personal ID and address. So it was that we headed to the mall and bought phones on our first night here, even though we’d arrived in the early hours, got to our hotel at 2am, been picked up at 10am and spent all day at work. And, it was a Sunday – a normal working day here, of course.

Next, I opened a Bank Account – you can’t get paid without a local bank account, unless you want it in cash. And of course you can’t get a bank account without a phone number. I took an HSBC debit card and credit cards; now, with every transaction I get a text from HSBC with the details – instantly.

Crowne Plaza, Yas Island - Pool and Golf Course
Our first 10 days were spent in the desert but then we moved to the Crowne Plaza, perhaps the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in…

If getting a phone is the first act, then the first rule must be ‘Cars Go First’ – always. The otherwise polite and calm Emiratis go to ‘take no prisoner’ mode when behind the wheel. And they do not stop for anything, except a red light or the police. So, even on pedestrian crosswalks, you do not step off the sidewalk if there’s a car coming. Unless there’s a red light, and there rarely is, cars go first; even on a crosswalk. I’ve stopped at crosswalks to allow pedestrians to cross but they eye you with a mix of fear and suspicion, then they wave you on, not willing to take the risk.

Actually, aggressive driving is one of the reasons we’ve chosen to live in Abu Dhabi, close to where I work, rather than Dubai – those that live in Dubai take their life in their hands on the daily commute.

The Crowne Plaza, Yas Island, is one of 6 hotels built in a circle within walking distance of the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 track. While we were staying there, the UAE Ferrari Owners Club met at the track sponsored by our hotel. There were 150 Ferraris in the hotel, many parked conspicuously in the front of the hotel. Apparently there were another 100 at the track, with suspensions too low to get over the vicious speed bumps that litter UAE roads. The track hosts race days for various clubs; Ferraris hold a special place here, with Ferrari World adjoining the track.

On Tuesday evenings the Formula 1 track is open to runners, walkers and cyclists (Wednesday evening’s for women only) at no charge and it's a popular place - you can even rent a bike if you need to - we didn't. But, we took advantage while the weather was still cool enough to get onto the track. 

Unfortunately, this is a small place and we saw lots of people we know, running and cycling, who realized we were just loafers with a camera.

The Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Track accommodates all skill levels...

Ferrari World Link: 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Navigating Abu Dhabi

Previous article written on Abu Dhabi in Spring 2011

There are no addresses in Abu Dhabi. It’s a bit like when I was a kid in the UK and we used to navigate by landmarks, usually pubs, to get to my cousin’s farm (turn left at the Cat & Fiddle and drive 1 mile and you’ll see a lane to your right…), but this is a city the size of Calgary – and there aren’t any pubs.

But there are stores, banks, hotels and disappointingly lots of Western fast-food restaurants. Downtown, some of the key landmarks are the KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, the Abu Dhabi Mall, Marks & Spencer Building and Le Royal Meridian Hotel. There are lots of KFCs and Pizza Huts, of course, but these are major corner landmarks that everyone knows. I’ve shown a map to one of the Offset Bureau buildings from their website to give you an idea.

 Unfortunately, I used a map like this to get to their building. I carefully gave the cab driver directions, naming the building (Almamoura Building B) and directions (close to the Pizza Hut on Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed St). I even showed him the map – he didn’t want to see it – they never want to see it. And we searched the area around the Pizza Hut, asking people if they knew the building. Some of them thought they did but couldn’t direct us. Turns out they’d moved across town, taking the building name with them! I didn’t need Pizza Hut – I needed Jones the Grocer…

And if you think it’s hard finding an address downtown, try going into a housing subdivision…

And with no addresses, there’s not really any mail. Some people get a PO Box but essentially the place operates without it; so don’t send postcards... One example is speeding tickets: speed cameras are everywhere and the way the locals drive, there are lots of tickets – but no one tells you when you’re caught. Until you go to get your licence renewed that is; then they give you the accumulated bill; and no licence until you pay. So, many guys call the license bureau every couple of months just to make sure they stay on top of their tickets.

Talking of Western fast-food restaurants, as I walked past the MacDonald’s counter at the airport, a woman called out to me to come and have breakfast.
‘What is breakfast?’ I asked
‘Egg McMuffin, of course.’
‘What’s in an Egg McMuffin?’
‘Egg, cheese and sausage,’ she said.
‘What kind of sausage?’
‘Chicken, of course.’
‘And is all of your food halal?’ (meat prepared for Muslims).
‘Of course it is,’ she replied…

Chicken Shawarma Salad
Of all the Western restaurants in UAE, the one that surprised me the most was TGI Friday’s, the American chain, and I saw several of them. I wondered if the locals knew what it meant… I mean, shouldn’t it be TAI Thursday’s? The working week here runs from Sunday through Thursday, but then again Friday is the holy day and people here are more devout, so maybe the American title is appropriate.

We didn’t eat there, of course, plumping instead for the ‘Automatic’ Lebanese restaurant right across the street from the KFC. Here they serve you way too much food, much of which you have to prepare yourself – see the trappings for chicken shawarma here. And, they ask you how you want your coffee, when you order it (the answer is ‘no sugar’, ‘some sugar’ or ‘lots of sugar’).

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi at sunset

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Initial Visit

Previous article written on first visiting Abu Dhabi in summer 2010

The first thing that hits you in Abu Dhabi is the heat. We work out in the desert where it’s often 50°C. The sky is always blue, and the sun sears you as if you were a steak, as if your skin would sizzle and peel right off. The heat of their summer is like the cold of our winter – humans avoid it. 
Car awnings at Abu Dhabi Hotel
No one eats out on the patio, no one rides a motorbike, and no one goes to the beach. When you step outside the heat literally takes your breath away. No plug-ins here, but awnings grace the parking spaces; people rush to their cars and stand in the shade as the air conditioning cools them down. You know it’s hot when cloth seats burn you through your clothes.

It’s a black and white world. At least if you are Arab, and about 50% of the people I saw were. Men, almost all of them, wear white robes and headdresses, and women wear black. Some men (about 10%) wear a light colour such as yellow, lime or beige. 

Some women (about 10%) wear their scarves so they completely cover their faces, but most wear scarves to just cover their hair. There are lots of western-dressed men and women, and they look much like a day at the mall.

We ate halal food (Muslim prepared meat) and it was very good. Having arrived straight from the UK, definitely a pork-based society, it was a complete change. Breakfast was veal bacon and eggs with chicken sausage.

And it’s a gold service society. There is lots of imported labour from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, etc. working on the building sites, driving cabs, and serving in restaurants. I realize this on my first morning when I go to breakfast. I sit down and the server comes to ask what I’d like, sir.
‘Coffee and I’ll just take the buffet…’
‘What would you like from the buffet, sir?’
‘Oh, isn’t it serve yourself?’
‘Yes, but I can get it for you if you tell me what you’d like…’
And so it was everywhere – ridiculously good service.
A guy from the UK who’d just moved there told me, ‘I was washing my car on Sunday when my neighbour walked by. ’
He said, ‘ Why are you doing that? ’
‘ I’m a Brit; we always like to wash our cars on Sunday…’
‘Why don’t you get someone to do it for you – I’ll give you the number of the guy that does mine? ’
‘No, I like to do it…’ The neighbour just shook his head in disbelief.
‘Wait till I start planting my garden!’

It’s green everywhere around the city. Strips of grass with equally spaced trees border the highways; our work site in the desert, a fenced military school, is lined with lawns, trees and flowers made possible through the liberal use of sprinklers. There’s a lush lawn at our hotel, and as we leave one day I see a guy out there in the middle of active sprinklers with a hose, spraying for all he’s worth. 

At night, green light illuminates the prayer towers (minarets) on each mosque, and there are mosques everywhere. Just like Christian buildings in the West, there are small modest ones almost on every corner, each with its own minaret, set to one side, from which the call to the faithful is made several times during the day. But there are also magnificent cathedral-like mosques, with many minarets. The Grand Mosque of Sheik Zayed in the centre of Abu Dhabi is a huge structure with many white domes and four minarets. It sits, gleaming white, and must be one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.

It was my first trip to the Middle East and I was keen to see a camel up close – but I got more than I bargained for. Driving into the desert I saw a group of camels beside the road, shepherded by an old man, who through a series of awkward laughs and gestures, invited us to go over to them. As I reached out to touch one on its flank, it turned around as if to kiss me (I think!) – I only just got out of the way. And I can’t help thinking they were laughing at me. 
Fresh from the heat of the day, all you want is a cold beer. It’s a ‘dry’ society, but alcohol is freely available in all of the hotels where Westerners hang out, and there’s no shortage of cold beer. The restaurants in the hotels are good too, so it’s tempting not to foray into the city. But we went to the Lebanese Flower restaurant downtown – it also does take out, with people ordering from their cars, with servers running around taking their orders on little pads as they jam the street. It’s a popular place and the food was great. The guy that served us joked that his lime and mint drinks were laced with vodka; they were very good – and no hangover!