Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A couple of kids, almost every one

This town (this country, and so many others in the Middle East and the West, too) is filled with them. People from somewhere else, a very poor somewhere else, working their tails off six days a week to send cash home to their families. In all but one case - Madelin, who befriended me after frequent trips to the Costa coffee near my hotel where she worked - every one I've encountered has kids back home. Madelin works just as hard of course, and I am sure she sends a ton of money back home to her family.

I have often wondered about this diaspora, particularly when it comes to the Philippines, where there is an entire generation of kids back at home, being raised by grandparents, that get to see their mom or their dad, if they are lucky, once a year.

Ramona Ruiz wrote nicely about this in The National today. I always think about it when I get grumpy about life here; when it's hot or confusing or seems not fair. Usually when I get really stressed in Abu Dhabi, when I am feeling sorry for myself and lonely and wondering what I am doing here, I head to a local nail salon, where I get a pedicure and a neck massage for 80 dirhams. And relax while the girl rubbing the tension out of my neck and the one dotting the polish on my toes, both of them usually giggling about something, have kids growing up thousands of miles away.

I always tip them large and leave wondering how this could have happened. And wonder how it is possible they cheered me up.

They keep coming, and coming. I noticed a fire the other day while covering something else and started talking to people on the ground. Some people were trapped on the upper floors of the extremely dodgy apartment building in question. It was the third fire there since last fall (the owner said he had no idea how many people lived in his building, as "one person rents it and 30 people move in") and the mostly Filipino tenants were upset and worn out. I talked to one guy, worried about his sister, who had just moved here one week earlier. When I phoned him back later to check on her, yes, he said, she had been rescued. But did I know of any restaurant work? She a years of experience and could do almost any job.

Crappity crap crap, I thought as I hung up, wishing I was back in Ottawa where I could have made half a dozen calls.

Today I thought to myself that one thing I will be glad not to see when I move somewhere else are wealthy-looking families trailed by their Filipino nannies. Even that thought I feel bad writing, because I have good close friends who have nannies, and that's because they have to in the absence of a day care system. It's just, you know, thinking that the nannies are chasing after other people's kids all day, wondering - but probably never saying - just how much they miss their own back home.

It's not fair. Not here or anywhere else. After a year here, it's about all I feel like I know for sure sometimes.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Coldplay was awesome, perhaps even more so because of the driving rain

I don't have any pictures; we were too far away and my camera was wet. But it was lovely, really lovely there Saturday night, across from the glow of Emirates Palace.

Just like an English rock festival, but in Abu Dhabi, where it never rains like that.

Random meat mention censorship & Oprah

I was watching Mama O last night, which I always do when homesick, and it was an episode about recession cooking. A topic that bored me six weeks ago, by the way, yet still I watched on. Anyhoo, one of the celeb chefs from one of the food networks – she had three or four of them on near the end – was making pulled pork, and MBC 4 had cut out the word "pork". Almost every time, which I found about as strange as the fact all of them, including Oprah, were sipping big, full glasses of pinot noir.

The building across from my building; I just cannot for the life of me figure out what they are doing there

It involves bringing things from the roof and making them into that pile you see. Are they taking the building apart from the top down? It never seems to change shape.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dubai, in pictures

My dad was visiting a couple of weeks ago and we took a ridiculous double-decker bus tour of Dubai. It was helpful in a way, because before I'd gone on it I couldn't wrap my head around the city.

But then again, who needs to whip down a highway on the top of a bus, hearing about malls and construction sites and multi-use facilities, taking in cranes and traffic and a variety of hotels? Only in Dubai.

Burj al Arab

Burj Dubai (it will, briefly, be the world's tallest tower)

The unappealing German tourist on our bus who insisted on lifting up his shirt like this

Jumeirah Mosque

Ras al Khoor port

Ski Dubai inside the Mall of the Emirates

One of the homes on the Palm, one of those islands they created in the sea

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Friday, March 27, 2009

He's only 21 and still in university: meet Umm al Qaiwain's new Crown Prince

The National's Rym Ghazal (who, if I am not mistaken, went to Carleton University) has a good interview with the young Sheikh Rashid bin Saud bin Rashid Al Mua'alla.

I urge you to take a look at the link, if only to see Sheikh Rashid, a lover of felines, playing with his "favourite pet", which appears to be a tiger.

An open letter to men who think the way to approach a woman at the gym is to give her "tips" on her weightlifting form

I know you are older. I am sure you've been working out a lot longer than I have. But unless you have the body of Brad Pitt in Fight Club, a sense of humour like Stephen Colbert and the penetrating blue eyes of my first boyfriend, then find something else to talk to me about.

"The water in this cooler is really cold" or "nice weather". It really doesn't matter. I like talking to people. I didn't even really mind stopping my workout to indulge you on your second approach, hearing about your "resentment" over your separation from your wife and how management at gyms you've belonged to in the past have asked you to stop talking to members about their form because "you were making all the trainers look bad". The bottom line is, I have shelled out loads on personal trainers; I read fitness magazines and watch The Biggest Loser (sometimes). Me, and others like me, are going to find a man like you, doing this, condescending, and I am sure you are smart enough to know from the get-go this is really not going to get you anywhere.

Bottom line: I am going to be irritated by a man who steals my time to provide a lengthy series of "tips" I don't want, all while yelling because he cannot be bothered to take his earbuds out.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

It was the coolest thing

Colin Randall, the paper's executive editor, has just left The National building for good. He is going back to France, effectively retiring, and as he made his final rounds some of the other former Telegraph editors starting slowly pounding their desks with one hand. Soon everyone had joined in, sort of like the lone person clapping in the cliche moving endings, only better.

Colin is a lovely man, even if he does devote entire columns to punctuation and say things like "I thought it was rather inelegant, the way you included his age in the lede" (he was the paper's style guru, after all). And it was quite stirring as he made his way around the room in the growing din, finally walking out in a chorus of whoops and hollers.

Apparently this is a British thing, when you retire. And since everyone is still supposed to be working, they hit the desk with just one hand.

I am obsessed with: Forty Fruity

Just as I am about to tire of the avocado, my straw strikes mango; before I know it, the guava is gone and I am into the sweet finish of strawberry. Ask for it without sugar; you will be glad you did.

Good one, UAE community blog

The headline is "Dubai Hero protestor let down by Twitter users".

Hmmmm, who is this mysterious yet activist Jean Von Blanc in Dubai? I cannot seem to find him...

Adventures in reporting, part 2

Me: Requesting a phone interview from a spokesperson in Dubai.

Him: Can you come here? It would be better, you can meet him, sit, have some coffee, talk.

Me: Well, I am speaking to other people, and it's for tomorrow, so I can't really afford to spend 4 hours going there and back.

Him, gently sighing: This is your problem, not mine.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A random thing I feel the need to semi-publicly confess

I like the music of Coldplay and will be attending their concert, featuring the opening act Mercury Rev, at Emirates Palace on Saturday night.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Are there not other ways you could cut down, Jaye?

Two bloggers over at Gulf News are attempting to Wipe out Waste in their lives. Jaye, the male half of the duo and definitely the more hardcore, has been making his own shampoo and stopped using deodorant and soap, rinsing himself daily with the finest of desalinated water. He also takes a weekly dip in the sea, although I am not sure what this has to do with it. I heard this whole "once you start wearing deodorant you need it but you really don't if only you'd stop wearing it" argument, and it's usually been made to me by decidely non-smelly people who don't wear deoderant.

All I am saying is, as we head into summer, is the UAE really the right place for this experiment?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Adventures in reporting, Part 1

Me: Dial the number of an official, on a mobile number I have since checked and know is right.

Him: Hello?

Me: Hi, is this (insert name)?

Him: No. (Hangs up)

Just about the best photo I have ever received in the e-mail

A few months ago I wrote about the sauna suits I spotted on sale in Al Falah Plaza, asking "Why wouldn't you wear this to work out?"

One of my bestest friends from home asked me to send him one, and it took me awhile but I finally did it. This is what I got in return. JP, in his driveway back in Ottawa, mocking the package photo as only he could.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I forgot to mention that JP says it fits "like a space glove".

Friday, March 20, 2009

Or you could get a headset, but what fun would that be?

I looked over my shoulder the other day to catch a glimpse of one of the reporters here, fellow Canadian Matt Kwong, holding this contraption.

When I asked if he'd mind me taking and posting a photo, he said "Do you want me to explain how the sponge offers traction for your shoulder?"

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Magical, beautiful Musandam, part 1

I've now only seen the top of Oman, the part that is surrounded by the UAE, called Musadam, which is a big rocky fiord overlooking brilliant Arabian Sea. We took a day trip on one of the traditional fishing boats: I highly recommend it. Basically, there is nothing up there. The perfect antidote to the non-stop development down below.

Oh boy, wouldn't this be absolutely fabulous?

Does the recession make men desire a bit more meat on our bones? This article suggests so.

“When the economy is clearly and uniformly tanking,” Dr. Nelson told The Daily Beast earlier this week, “what will emerge is some kind of a shift to more of an ideal of a fuller, plumper woman.”

I am going to the vending machine right now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On the way to Musandam...

...in Oman, passing through Ras al Khaimah, naturally we had to watch out for camels on the road.

The not-so-grand Embassy of Canada in Abu Dhabi

I had to go to the Canadian embassy in Abu Dhabi recently to have the Arabic translation of my Canadian driver's license notarised. (We are the only nationality, by the way, required to have this done to get UAE driving permits, all for a cool 200 dirhams). I was sort of excited at this prospect, not having needed the services of my local Canadian embassy before. It all felt very expat-ish, telling people for no reason, "I have to go to the embassy tomorrow" or "I just went to the embassy". So I was fairly unimpressed to learn that it is on the ninth and 10th floor of the office tower beside Abu Dhabi Mall.

I am not sure what I was expecting, but I think in the back of my mind I'd had this image of things really hitting the fan in Abu Dhabi, an invasion, or a coup, perhaps, some sort of terrorism that only targets Canadians, maybe. And if that happened, I sort of felt like I could take refuge at the embassy (you know, dramatically climbing over a big, comforting and protective fence to the safe haven inside a massive compound... Possibly making it just in time before some sort of dramatic explosion, falling into the arms of a burly but not unattractive oil and gas worker from Calgary... you know, standard stuff.)

Instead, should I need to seek refuge at the Canadian embassy, which, let's be honest, I probably won't, I would have to press a button and wait for an elevator. It just really doesn't fit into my disaster scenario at all.

NOTE: While at the embassy, where I was forced to stare at large photos of people like Lawrence Cannon (did they have a portrait of Maxime Bernier, pre-scandal? I suppose I shall never know), I witnessed several large vases of fresh flowers being delivered, replacing vases of flowers that were only slightly wilted. I don't want to get all "taxpayer watchdog-y" (and as a non-resident it really would not be appropriate) and fresh flowers are lovely, but are they really necessary? Aren't there quite a lot of embassies 'round the world? Do they all get fresh flowers? What, exactly, does all this cost?

NOTE 2: While at the embassy I had to put my cell phone in a tiny locker.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Today in religious celebrations that sound nice but are a little hard to wrap one's head around

The Indian festival of Holi marks the start of spring and the first harvest of the year, as my colleague Suryatapa Bhattacharya writes today in The National. It's usually celebrated over two days, and kicked off yesterday with people visiting their neighbours and friends, eating sweets and playfully "throwing dry powder and coloured water at each other".

Stores in Dubai have stocked up on the coloured powders, called gulal, which sell for a couple of dirhams and come in red, orange, green, yellow and blue. Apparently people load up water guns and soak each other.

I felt a little for Tushar Kumar, a construction worker who had to tone down his celebration a little due to a killjoy of a landlord in Musaffah:

“We are not allowed to play with colours in our living quarters,” he said.

You do not want to be single and over 30 here, nooooo you do not

I forgot all about this gem I found one day a couple of months ago while Googling (I am not sure what I was looking for; perhaps I just punched in: spinsters+fate of=?) Badum-bump. The search turned up an inadvertently hysterical 2007 article in a Dubai tabloid called Xpress, titled Sad Spinsters: Lonely Hearts.

There is lots of typical stuff in there, and some not-so typical, considering this is the UAE: Maryam is 50, resigned to being a spinster; despite her success, she'd rather be married with kids than highly educated and single. Emirati men were marrying non-Emirati women because it's cheaper, apparently. Some women are glad they've ducked bad marriages and are just seeking a good one. A counsellor at Dubai Courts helpfully suggests women opt to become a second wife, acknowledging that comes with its own set of problems.

It was the sidebar that caught my eye though. I include it below for your reading enjoyment, drawing your specific attention to the comparison of an unmarried woman of a certain age to an old camel, the psychiatrist who says spinsters tend to suspicion and flatulence, and the cultural expert who calls us "dangerous".


The Islamic view

Ahmad Al Qubaisi, a leading Islamic scholar in Dubai, said: "The concept of spinster does not exist in Islam. The Arabic word aanes is used to refer to a female camel who has reached old age. Muslim women can get married at any time regardless of age. However, Islam encourages early marriage as a way to complete half of his/her religious duties."

Al Qubaisi said that getting married and having children is both a pleasure and a duty that completes one’s womanhood.

The doctor’s view

Dr Mohammad Wafeek Eid, a psychiatrist at Al Musa Medical Centre in Dubai, said most spinsters suffer from anxiety, depression and multiple psychosomatic complaints, including headaches, epigastric disturbances, abdominal gases and discomfort. "They tend to be suspicious and they make those around them uncomfortable. They are somehow viewed as abnormal because they do not go through motherhood – spinsters are the object of social pity. They feel they are unfulfilled, incomplete," he said.

The cultural view

Eman Abdullah, president of the International Women’s Cultural Forum in Dubai, said spinsterhood is a "dangerous" phenomenon.

It waters down the Arabic language, destroys local customs and traditions and creates an unstable and unhealthy family life, she said.

The forum recommends that the problem of spinsterhood be recognised and practical solutions found. It also encourages Emirati youngsters to be aware of the importance of getting married to their compatriots.

I was reminded of this article last night when a taxi driver named Saeed implored me to get married. "Ohhhhhhh my friend," he said, holding his head in his hands. "You married - good. No married - bad." He had 6 children and a wife of 13 years back in Afghanistan, and made me promise the next time I see him I will be married. Fine, I told him, I'll get married. As if my to-do list was not long enough.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

For anyone planning to see Watchmen in the UAE

And with that much Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who wouldn't? Anyway, One Big Construction Site explains why it might not be such a good idea.

Apparently the last 20 minutes have been edited in a way he/she likens to a "4 year old on a sugar rush" to expel all traces of a phallic-esque character.

A random thing I feel the need to semi-publicly confess

I am dangerously close to joining Twitter, just as soon as I can figure out what it is.

(In a related development, the British journalism newsletter Gorkana tells me Sky News has just appointed Ruth Barnett a Twitter Correspondent: "she will now dedicate her time to scouring the Twittersphere for news stories on a daily basis and feeding back relevant stories to the rest of the Sky News team". Ruth’s tweets can be followed at www.twitter.com/RuthBarnett)

Margaret Atwood and a little literary festival in Dubai

An interesting piece about the whole Atwood "banned in Dubai" debacle at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in the Toronto Star. It was hard to get the full story when it happened last month, and reading this, it's no wonder.

The author pulled out of the festival after the British author Geraldine Bedell said her book had been banned and we all thought "UAE censorship". In the end, as it is with most things, it wasn't that simple.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Overheard at the Captain's Arms

Two British guys talking over pints (for much, much longer than I would have thought two guys would talk over pints on this particular topic) about how one of them has a massive crush on a girl at work.

Guy 1: Do you talk to her outside the office?

Guy 2: Yeah. (Pauses, smiles bashfully) She probably calls me more than I call her.

Guy 1: (Gives him a thumbs up) Probably time for champagne and strawberries.

Guy 2: Yeah, but that's the easy part.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Snap caption: Upbeat sign at airport ignores daunting number of steps involved in getting Abu Dhabi anywhere close to "breathtaking"

My new apartment, 2am callers and all

That is a key hanging in the door of my new staff apartment, the one I got from a friend right before the company threw up their hands at Abu Dhabi's absurd housing shortage and cancelled the program. So I am pretty grateful, I guess. Because otherwise I'd be out of my hotel as of May 1, and facing really gross rents or a commute from Dubai. I am fairly certain I would have chucked the entire UAE experiment if that had been the case, so I guess this means I wasn't meant to quit just yet.

That is a little falcon hood on my keychain, very authentic, don't you know. Gemma, the Filipina lady who works long hours six days a week manning the desk at the Ramee Hotel Apartments, the one who once a week or so gave me a thumbs up on the outfit I was wearing, who told me at Christmas that she was sad, because the people she loves aren't even far away in the Philippines, but (nodding her head to the ceiling) "in heaven", causing me to mist up, the one who asked me for some exercises that she could do because she was feeling "thick in the middle", wasn't very happy that I was moving out. There was a long silence when I told her.

"Well," she said, "I cannot stop you."

The day I moved out, which mostly involved calling a cab and filling it with my suitcases, Gemma said she'd miss me. I told her I'd miss her too. And I will. Ever since that freaked out morning I arrived almost a year ago, when I asked stupidly "where is the gym?" and she replied "no gym ma'am", Gemma has been the one lovely constant in my life. She moved me rooms, from the one infested with cockroaches to the one that didn't seem to have any. And when I suspected I had bedbugs, she hopped right on a solution. Mostly in those early days Gemma and the other friendly staff there just helped because I felt like there was someone who noticed me, and I really appreciated it, as it kept me from feeling swallowed up and all alone on more than one occasion.

I would go visit, but I fear it would just be like when women on mat leave bring their new babies back to the office and everyone just stands around, awkwardly, wondering how long they are expected to linger. (Or maybe that was just me) Anyway, I've moved on, and been busy trying to set up an apartment at the absolute minimum cost, which has involved buying second-hand everything and making cranky trips to Ikea for the other stuff.

Then, at 2am today, an insistent ringing of my doorbell. It took sleeping me awhile to realise what it was (not having heard my doorbell before) and when I looked through the keyhole, a man looked back. Another man was behind him, knocking on the door of the apartment across the hall.

"What do you want?" I asked through the door that I most definitely would not be opening.

"Ma'am, checking the bathroom or the kitchen for smoke," he said back. "I live on the fourth floor."

Now, there was no smoke, and I am pretty sure by "fourth floor" he means a bunch of shacks that have been erected on the roof, so I felt I wasn't being too unneighbourly by shouting through the door (especially after I could hear the girl across the hall doing the same thing, in a similar sleepy and confused voice) "there is no smoke. Go away!"

The kitchen sink leaks and when I drain a bath, the water backs up all over the floor. The garbage chute, apparently, was not constructed properly (instead of curving, I am told it just heads straight down to the floor, which leads, understandably, to a pile of garbage blocking it, rendering it useless) so people just put their bags in the hall, filling it with a fruity, gamey smell. When I look out the windows, I see other people's windows, and have to crane my neck for a slice of blue sky.

But it's my own place, and just like everybody else with their own place said it would, it feels a lot better than living in a hotel.

The adventure continues.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I am obsessed with: Microwave Man

One of the very best parts of moving to Abu Dhabi, and working at this newspaper, are meeting so many different personalities from all over the world. One of my favourite is Jonathan Gornall, a former chief sub (that's a copy editor to you Canadians) at The Times and news feature editor here, not to mention part of a foursome that very nearly rowed clear across the Atlantic Ocean in 2004 save for some serious weather. That was his second attempt. Jonathan is one of the very best kind of Brits: he loves to complain, but makes it funny, he has a lightening-speed wit and loads of charisma. He is also quite dashing, and it's no secret that most of the women in the office of a variety of ages have slight crushes on him. He is also a man, and thus his ego is easily bruised. I am just guessing if he read this he would hone in on the word "slight" and walk away a little bit wounded. So, I shall change it to "major". He also has a gorgeous girlfriend, quite a few years his junior, back in England, a love of Starbucks food and a little tendency towards behind-the-wheel frustration, but then again, who wouldn't here?

I am sure he has done loads more mind-boggling things that I do not know about. But for a while, in the time between breaking up with his last serious girlfriend and meeting this one, he wrote about his adventures in the single life in a Times column called Microwave Man. Then he wrote a book based on the columns, a sort of memoir (although he refuses to reveal what is truth and what is fiction). I have been reading it for weeks now, howling out loud at some of his funnier lines, feeling a little sad at the points he is maudlin, and getting a pretty good peek into the inner workings of one (formerly) philandering male's mind. With footnotes. And ever-present libido.

Although I know quite a lot more about Jonathan (I think I do, anyway) than I'd ever bargained on, I so enjoyed his book I want to start a campaign to revive it from the bargain bins. I've done my job, ordering my oldest friend a copy from Amazon.com. Knowing Jonathan, (perhaps?) a little better now, I am sure he will not appreciate this.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Better late than never: the Terry Fox Run, Abu Dhabi

It was quite something, seeing 15,000 people turn out along Abu Dhabi's Corniche for the Terry Fox Run last Friday. Wait, actually, the Friday before that. I donned some rollerblades for the event, and got a little choked up by the sight of all those Canadian flags. A group of Emiratis volunteered at the event, handing out water and directions along the 8.5km route.

Note: A move to my new staff apartment, the resulting lack of internet access, moving from being an sub to a reporter and a much-anticipated visit from my dad all add up to not very much blogging. But I will be back, for those of you who check here faithfully. Thanks for that, by the way.

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 ...