Thursday, May 29, 2008

I am rethinking the "bringing in the cake on your birthday" thing

I actually liked bringing in cakes for other people on my birthday, the British vice-versa routine. It was fun. It even felt unselfish, you know?

I had one of my top birthdays ever here. My colleagues bought me prezzies, which are always nice, and turned out in full force for cocktails at the Sheraton. There was champagne! And nice words spoken! There was even a lengthy recitation of a poem I recall as being Gaelic, to my delight.

And as I looked around at more than a dozen people, from all around the world, none of whom I knew two months ago - all who I really, really like - I thought to myself "this is worth it. This moment. No matter how long I stay or what happens or how homesick I get. I am glad I came."

Overheard in the newsroom

American, extolling the virtues of beef jerky to a Brit.

American: I can bring some in for you.

Brit: Oh, please don't.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Michael Prentice is daft, I think, or I have but one interest

Soon after I arrived here, I was contacted by an old colleague for Michael Prentice, the (former?) Ottawa Citizen writer who pens the Telling Tales column in Ottawa Magazine.

He wanted to do a bit on my move to Abu Dhabi, and would I mind e-mailing him?

Well, I am not going to lie. I was secretly chuffed that he might think anyone might be interested in my little old life. (More likely they would be saying "who?") So I emailed him a few lines, though not a picture, as he requested, which I am now glad about. A good friend in Ottawa received her Ottawa Magazine last week and kindly transcribed the item, then sent it to me. Here it is:

"Ann Marie McQueen, the 30-something former Ottawa Sun columnist, says she wanted adventure. So she sold her condo in the Byward Market and headed for Abu Dhabi and a rewrite job at a new English-language daily, The National. "I miss Ottawa and all of my good friends there, but I'm sure I've done the right thing," said McQueen, who lists her interest on Facebook as "men". She'll be living in a company apartment. "There is an insane housing shortage here," she reports.

Do you think he was trying to make me sound vapid and boy-crazy, or does he truly not understand Facebook to this shocking extent?

So May 28 is my birthday...

...yes, I am turning 30 again, hardy har har. (I got that joke for the first time when I was 32 by the way)

I am feeling pretty good about my place in the world - having a reprieve from the wild mood fluctuations which seem to accompany living so far from home, in a hotel, in 45 degree heat, working six-day weeks in a wildly chaotic-but-still-great environment - and looking forward to heading to Cloud 9, a swanky cigars-and-cocktails bar at the Sheraton Hotel, to celebrate a wee bit after the paper goes to bed.

The Brits here tell me I have to bring cakes in for everyone. Not, as I am used to, vice versa. It's their tradition.

Such an odd people, they are.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

So long Ethiopia

I imagine by now anyone who reads this blog (and I love it that some people do) is as tired of my never-ending Ethiopia slide show as I am. But just a few remainders. We stayed at the Hilton Hotel, which is a sort of a gathering centre for the city. It has the banks, the travel agencies, the bars and the health club. And a lobby (and lobby bar) that offered one of the most interesting assortments of human beings I have ever seen. At one point I looked around the lobby and saw a) a group of nuns b) two Rastafarians c) several (I assume) prostitutes d) two American military men e) two priests f) and a Western couple with their newly-adopted Western baby.

On that last point, Angelina Jolie really started something when she came here to adopt Zahara. Apparently the country has some of the most relaxed adoption laws around (ie couples over 35 can adopt here, single people) and it's quite obvious. At breakfast I'd say 3/4 of the tables are new parents.

Another thing about the Hilton. I arrived, exhausted, on a short overnight flight. After sleeping for a few hours I stumbled downstairs to the pool, where I lay on a chair to wait for my friend to arrive. That's when I heard it: tink, tink, tink. I looked over and saw a blue tarp erected around a section of the pool patio. Behind it were two men chipping away at the concrete. They never stopped, 9 hours a day, even on Saturday and Sunday. It reminded me of the men I would see working in the hot sun in India, who would be sitting in between a large pile of bricks, and a small pile of dust, not a bottle of water in sight.

Addis: Entoto etc

This is the Entoto Mariam Church, located at the top of Mt Entoto. Some people walk a paved road up the mountain, but I think they are craaazy. There were tons of people praying at this church, kneeling down, kissing the ground. Several in quite dire straits, suffering from a variety of physical ailments. There were lots of these little shrines in the windows. You cannot go inside, which I found frustrating.

There was a very small and bizarre museum, and by bizarre I mean it combined Olympic medals with old, regal costumes and ornate dishes, several which seemed to have price tags on them. Also up top was Emperor Menelik's first palace which, I must say (and you can see, from the following photograph) was most unimpressive. However, considering it was built in 1876 EC (the "EC" stands for Ethiopian calendar, it's 2000 there right now) - wait, no, it was still very unimpressive. There is a beautiful view from up on Entoto, but unfortunately, I was hyperventilating from the altitude.

Below is the Ethnological Museum, located on the main campus of Addis Ababa University and while I enjoyed it, the power was out. This made it difficult to see everything, though the security guard lent me his flashlight to take in a particularly dark room full of Ethiopian musical instruments. Things got a little hairy when he had to escort me to the bathroom, where the toilets were broken. But he grabbed a bucket of water and poured it in for me, so all was good. Sort of.

Just a few last Addis gasps: His name is Ato Kassa

He is 65, working on his loom, fingerless from leprosy. Taken at the Birhan Taye Leprosy Disabled Persons Work Group, administered through the Anti Retroviral Training Program, where survivors produce and sell various arts and crafts.

More on Addis Ababa: You really can carry this kind of a load on your back

But who would want to?

Yet they do, the women, every day, up and down Mount Entoto, which overlooks the capital. I saw women - begging women - hunched over to this extent who weren't carrying large loads of timber on their back, and spotted a sign for The Former Women's Fuel Wood Carriers Association.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One of the best parts of the trip was the stuff I wouldn't normally get to see

As I said, my friend works in development. So one day while I was in Addis Ababa, we visited some of the programs her organization is funding, or considering funding.

This was a drop-in centre for kids. They were watching Babe when we came by and from what I could tell, loving it. And, as a friend of mine pointed out, they were also sitting on plastic lawn chairs. They were super cute.

We then went on to visit one of the families who has a child attending the drop-in centre. That child wasn't there, nor was the mother, but a sister, a little one and a neighbour were. This is actually a bar (their home is behind this room) and like many of the homes in Addis, the walls are of constructed from mud, or cow dung, and the roof is made of sheets of metal.

You can see the bottles of booze to the left - light and dark - and I can only describe the smell as "nostril hair burning-esque."

This cup, hanging outside, indicates the home is a bar.

In both places we visited, the ladies of the house had papered over much of the walls with old newspapers. Two, I noticed, were from Abu Dhabi (which I thought odd). I had a moral dilemma with these visits, though. For me, they were perfect: off the beaten path, a glimpse into life in Africa not seen from the Hilton. But I felt terrible about it, like I was along for a game of "let's cluck over how terribly poor you are. And I'll even take pictures to show my friends back home."

I didn't give them any money either. I'm not sure why - because it would have been awkward? The least I could have done was bring a gift. I still feel bad about it.

All the municipal workers in Addis Ababa wear these floppy hats

This is a picture I am pretty sure everyone who has visited a market in Africa takes

From the Merkato market

Monday, May 19, 2008

Images of Ethiopia explained: the donkey

This picture I call "the unhappy donkey."

I had to photograph him, simply because he ran past our car bleating loudly. Something had really gotten him quite out of sorts. I would blame the hay, but really, I think this is his lot most every day. So it had to be something else. Here are a few of his friends, from behind.

Maybe next time you have to carry something, and you don't have enough hands, wrap yourself in it?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I went to Ethiopia last weekend

...which is a little hard to believe right now, sitting in 44 degree heat (will I stop complaining soon? Or will I pass out on the road whilst hailing a cab? It's hard to tell which will happen first).

My best pal works in development and just happened to be on a mission to Africa over the last month. We started talking, sort of 'could we?' 'would it happen this soon' and then when we figured she was going to be in Addis Ababa over the last weekend, and I realized there is a flight that would take me there and back, and my new boss kindly approved the extra days (five weeks after starting the job, he's a gem) I booked the ticket, which had managed to double in price while all that went on.

Never mind. What an experience. One of the top reasons I took this job in Abu Dhabi was for the travel opportunities. A person in Canada cannot go to Africa or India without significant time off work and a lot of money. And the flights! Have you ever spent 24 hours changing three planes? It's inhumane. So, figuring it took three hours and 15 minutes to fly home from Ethiopia, I hope this is not my last such adventure.

Here are the snacks we got on the plane.

The snacks which just cracked me up so much I couldn't even eat them. Cheese planes! Are you kidding me?

I was the only white woman on the Ethiopian Airways flight there, which stopped briefly in Bahrain. The rest of the plane was full of mostly Ethiopian women. These women are a) absolutely beautiful b) prone to staring openly c) not shy about starting a conversation and d) extremely touchy.

As for the last one, I can't really describe it other than you know when you are there. The women on both sides of me had no concept of respecting the armrest. When we encountered one another in the aisles, they would just brush past but with what seemed to me to be a maximum attempt at body contact. As I waited to disembark, one woman, crowded up behind me, laid her hand on my back. For someone who has a deep respect for personal space, namely my own, it took some getting used to. But that's what travelling is all about. As for the 'not shy about starting a conversation' thing, mostly their intro would consist of "nationality?" Really cuts to the chase, huh? I had lovely chats with everyone. After the segregation that exists in Abu Dhabi (more on that later) their warmth and sense of humour was a breath of fresh air.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Now that is some promotion

The road outside our newspaper building. Martin Newland, the editor-in-chief, just confirmed that The National will go to seven days a week this fall. That means a lovely, thick Saturday paper with lots of fun sections and a magazine. This may be a bubble, but it's pretty nice to be away from all the doom and gloom associated with the North American media industry.

Water on the bathroom floor

It might not sound like much. But most everything here is tiled, which means it is slippery without moisture. And when you add a giant puddle from goodness knows where pooling in my bathroom every day, to flip flops, you basically have a hotel room/skating rink.

I have slipped a half-dozen times because of this water leak, which I have gently and kindly inquired about having fixed at the front desk. Each time I've pulled a different muscle - happens when you get older, doesn't it? - and cursed the puddle. This week I asked again, and when I went back to find out why the water was still there, Gemma, the lovely woman who seems to reside at the front desk each day, every day, tracking my movements with precision, sighed, shrugged her shoulders and said "I think it's normal, Miss Ann."

Then, last night, as I prepared to go out to my first Abu Dhabian house party, I got a phone call. While heading for the phone, I slipped in the hall. Again, because of the freaking water. I fell down hard but the worst part is, my big toe and the toe beside it (what are those toes called again?) were propelled, at a high rate of speed, into the corner of the wall, which had been thoughfully baseboarded with a different kind of tile. The kind that had chipped away at some point to form the ragged, evil edge that tore my toes apart. They both began hemorraging immediately. Sorry, that's haemorraging, in British. I think.

Mother&*%$#@. That's what I said. My big toe, more than 24 hours later, continues to bleed. They feel like those cartoon injuries - I think the big one might actually be visibly pulsating.

This morning, I limped down and said to Gemma, 'do you see what happened to my toes?' (I had used every last Bandaid in the box wrapping them up - it looked like a child's work, I realized too late) 'Oh Miss Ann,' she said. 'I send someone to fix.'

One minute later, two blue jumpsuit-clad workmen ring my doorbell. They came in and assessed the problem for about two minutes. They left and said they would be back. I swore one of them said "with a new one." A new toilet? I thought. Good.

Five minutes later, the doorbell rings again. I open the door to find the two workmen, the hotel manager, and another fellow from the front desk. They all stand there. The front desk fellow hands me two neatly folded bath mats.

'Would you like your room cleaned?' the manager asks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Abu Dhabi weather watch

It was 41 degrees Celsius today The weather forecast said "Extremely hot. Sunny. Dry."

I mention this because 41 degrees Celsius is bound to feel hot. (And it does) But it's become a bit of an obsession here among those of us who don't know, trying to reckon (that's me being British - is it annoying or charming?) just how another nine or 10 degrees will feel. Because that's summer in the desert, the kind of heat you hear about but just can't quite imagine. I can't imagine two more degrees, let alone 10.

Everyone talks about it. It feels like we all have this sense of collective doom. Especially the cab drivers, who make me feel that it's going to be a bit like living on Mars. (But then again, they can be overly dramatic to impress, just like the rest of us.) I do find I'm already going outside less. When I get a coffee, before work, I have to set it down on the curb while hailing a cab. It's too hot to hold. I'm looking for smaller sunglasses, because the ones I've got melt my makeup. I consider five minutes exposure to the sun "tanning." I actually avoid drinking cold water, because an Egyptian pharmacist here who gave me antibiotics for a throat infection told me it's just too much of a shock to a Westerner's system. A couple more degrees and I am going to start carrying an umbrella around with me.

And I am really, really looking forward to the new ice-skating rink opening up at the Marina Mall next month.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I still don't exactly understand the men in the tiny kitchen

Once The National moved into its permanent headquarters, a lovely, sprawling room shored up by royal blue pillars and decorated in all white, I noticed a man in the tiny kitchen where the kettle sits. There is a much larger, more modern kitchen around the corner. Oddly, it does not have a sink or a kettle.

But back to the tiny kitchen and the man inside. He wears a yellow vest and a white shirt and looks quite smart. He has a bushy black moustache. After a couple of days, I realized he runs the little kitchen. Mostly, his job seems to be keeping the kettle full of piping hot water for tea. I have been so gobsmacked by this feature of my new job, I failed to notice when there were not one but two kettles and, before long, not one but two men manning the kettles. And quite often, one of them actually serves some of my colleagues tea and/or coffee, right at their desks.

Also, they wash our mugs. I know this because my treasured "What's the news?" mug disappeared one day. Then, the next day, it was back on my desk. A couple of days later, it felt as though I had just taken my last swig of tea when I looked at the place where it had been, and it was gone. When I looked back at that spot again, about four minutes later: clean mug. I never even saw the hand that took it away. These guys are good. Not to mention stealthy.

I was speaking with some of my co-workers about this (the ones who are served tea at their desks) and they inform me I should be giving these men money because they are expats and probably aren't making much at all. Also, that is how they've been getting served tea at their desks. Now I just don't know how to give the men money. It feels so awkward. When I pop in to get some tea, should I just lay down some bills? Should I make a big production of it?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Just imagine if you had no answering machine

I don't have to imagine this, because I am living in a new world where there don't appear to be any answering machines. Not on my pay-as-you-go cell phone (cell phone plans are apparently "complicated" to get) and not on my work phone. Not on anyone else's work phone either.

Do not ask me how the full-time reporters deal with this. I wrote a story last week, and scheduled times via e-mail where I would call the people I interviewed for it. If I had to do this all the time, I would be very cranky for awhile and then I suppose I would get used to it.

The HSBC rep who set up my account (and three new credit cards, just to see which one I "like best") also does not have voice mail on his phone plan. Nor does the travel agency I called last week. Or the gym I am trying to get into.

All this leads me to my point. No one under the age of 30 in North America much bothers leaving messages anymore, at least not for their friends and anyone else who is familiar with their number. But if you do get a strange call in North America, and they don't leave a message, and you call the number, you are some sort of weirdo.

Not in Abu Dhabi. Not by a longshot.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

I didn't think I would miss pork this much

I really didn't. I rarely even have it back home. But then again, you always want what you can't have, don't you? It hit me, just now, as I ate some chicken wonton soup. It was just not the same. Not the same at all.

A couple of weeks ago I ordered breakfast and it came with weiners. Probably chicken weiners.

On Tuesday I went into a local cafe to get lunch. The fellow there proceeded to list off the menu items (as there did not appear to be an actual menu, more of a fluid thing, I guess): "chicken club, tuna salad, BLT - "

My eyes must have widened, because he stopped, smiled, and said "but without bacon."

I said, "so an LT?"

He didn't get it.

Anyway, I had chicken salad. And continue to dream about, well, you know. Apparently I can get pork, somewhere. And I think I will.

How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie.  After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and ...