Thursday, April 30, 2009

Let's all have a moment of silence for...

...for the import and sale of pork in the UAE. The nation, never fully enthusiastic about the trade of bacon and sausage, for valid reasons, has banned the products as a preventative measure in light of swine flu.

Whither the Spinney's pork room? How will I make that pancetta recipe, the one with the eggs in the holes in the toast, I watched Rachel Ray whip up the other day? And what about my plan to serve my expatriate friends The Bacon Explosion, the BBQ Sausage Recipe of All Recipes, come Canada Day?

I know this move will lessen my chances of getting swine flu, and hey, I rarely ate pork anyway when it was free-flowing, even a pizza topping, back in Canada. The truth is, I mostly only crave it when I can't get it. Still, I am reminded of what happened a long time ago when I had a chance to go to my 10th Grateful Dead concert in Buffalo, New York. I had just started a journalism summer job and the notion of a three-day, quite-possibly psychedelic excursion seemed inappropriate. I'll go next summer, I thought. When I am more settled and I have vacation time.

Well, the next summer never came because a short while later the band's grey furry frontman Jerry Garcia died. The Grateful Dead as I, a wanna-be third-ish generation fan, knew them, was over. And of course now the idea of putting bells on my ankles, dabbing on patchouli, eating dinner purchased from a man in a van known as the "Spaghetti Bus" and watching my boyfriend fall down on the ground laughing before he can pass me the whippet seems silly. Plus, no Jerry Garcia. Missed my last chance, although the occasion of his death did provide the name for a stray cat I adopted at the time.

My point: last week, while browsing the Spinneys aisles, I absent-mindedly mused "I should buy myself some sausage". But something else took my attention, and I wandered off, and now, my friends, it is too late.

The moral of the story is, not as those Canadian proprietors of expensive, moderately durable yoga clothes Lululemon dictate -"eat, floss, sing"; or as the strong-armed country star Tim McGraw sings Live Like You Were Dying, but, and this advice is straight from me, to "eat pork", eat lots of it, and eat it now, as long as your religion allows and you are not a vegan or vegetarian, and, obviously, do not happen to be living in one of several Middle Eastern countries at the moment.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

People pray in all sorts of places here in Abu Dhabi

There is the big boy, the lavish, lovely Taj Mahal-esque Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque that a first-time visitor to Abu Dhabi can't miss as they pass by from the airport.

There are hundreds, I'd wager, of lovely middle-sized mosques. Sometimes people can't fit into some of them, and pray on mats outside. Sometimes there isn't even a mosque: just a group of men in an empty, dusty plot all facing in the same direction on their prayer mats. Being devout does not require a bunch of bells and whistles, just a mat and a qibla, or a sense of one.

I used to walk by the mosque below all the time when I walked home to the Ramee Hotel Apartments. I always marvelled, simply because it looked so much like a shed. Anyway, it looks as though it is being torn down, and I shall stay tuned, curious whether something a little more spiffy is going up in its place.

There is also the possibility, though, it is being sacrificed for some more high-rise apartments.

You know you are getting old when...

... you say things like "you know you are getting old when". What am I, a lame greeting card slogan writer? Lordy Lordy, look who's ... oh forget it. That's a long way off. Well, it's a way off anyway.

But although I own an iPod touch, I was typing up some notes today using my first iPod, a second generation white version I've had for about six years, when one of the much-younger reporters approached and said "wow, is that a classic iPod?"

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

...I bought my entire outfit – dress+cardigan – at The Gap after work last night.

Snap caption: Cat on a hot car roof

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

People forget, they forget this country is only 37 years old

It took the recent case of a nine-year-old girl who was horrifically abused by her parents to do it, but just this week the Ministry of Social Affairs released a draft copy of its first-ever Child Rights Act.

The law would create a foster care system, where children could be seized if found in "unlivable conditions".

Reader of The National succinctly sums up what's wrong with the cheaper, older, gold and white taxis

Although I have to point out you don't get emerald-hued sequined covers in the back of the silver taxis. It's true though, they are all going to Musaffah. Bravo Lionel Bainbridge; you sport an admirable turn of phrase:

"One occasionally reads in your paper expressions of regret that Abu Dhabi's old white-and-gold taxis with their eccentric drivers are on the way out. I'd like to strike a dissenting note. Personally, I couldn't be more pleased about the new silver taxis. When their "for hire" light is on, they can be relied upon to stop and pick up a passenger rather than sailing past on some obscure mission of their own. This alone is an enormous stressbuster as there is nothing more annoying than attempting to flag down an apparently available cab, only to be ignored. The new cabs also have the advantage that their drivers don't only want to go to Musaffah and their drivers automatically use the meter rather than haggling for a fare. I hope to see more on the roads soon."

I was felled by the flu

Not the swine flu, of course, luckily. Just the regular flu. It's actually rather boring, but got me wondering: why do we enjoy telling people how sick we were once we are feeling better? I caught myself actually thinking about – daydreaming more like it - telling my friends just how sick and tired I had been when I returned to work.

No, I thought, don't do that. That is as bad as reciting the dream you had last night. As my friend Vanessa always says, "vaseline on the eyeballs" stuff. Anyway, that didn't stop me from going on about it a couple of people at work today. I tried to stop myself as their faces glazed over, but I couldn't do much more than trim the story by about two-thirds. No matter how much my inner voice was screaming "stop! stop!" I forged ahead with tales of antiobiotics and marathon sleeping sessions. Nothing gross, as that is where I draw the line. I once worked beside someone who had numerous, very audible discussions with his doctor about an infected something - something you could not see to look at him – and I've been vaguely queasy ever since.

I am sure they are thinking about how they will never get those precious moments back. To atone I will patiently listen to two other people tell me about their illnesses.

But that's my absolute limit.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Snap caption: Not your average taxi seat covers, actually

One million of them, not knowing how to vote

An overlooked issue in the Indian elections: how and where do the country's transgendered folk vote? In India they are also called eunuchs, and range from cross-dressers to those who have gender-reassignment surgery, and also hijras.

Some of them are pushing for a third designation, which is interesting. I wrote a big feature before leaving Canada on the transgendered rights issue; interviewed dozens of people about their quest for acceptance and protection in provincial and federal human rights codes. Gender politics, an issue the world over.

Anyway, for anyone who doesn't really "believe" in transgendered people and there are many, a million is a pretty hard number to argue with.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A sense of humour and patience

A woman commented here awhile back asking if there was anything I thought she should bring to Abu Dhabi. I lost track of where, and didn't answer her personally, and I feel bad about it. But if I had I would have said just two things. Because you can get almost anything here you can at home, aside from Aveda hair products and proper vanilla and almond extract and a decent club sandwich, and Steam Whistle and eggs over easy, but I digress. If you can't laugh at stuff and you start to lose it, well, you will lose it. It's hard to understand people, it's very hot and well, things are just generally different all around.

It's happened to all of us (or at least I know it's happened to me and loads of my friends) and all of a sudden there you are, with a dumb red face, a ranting stereotype, a sorry excuse, the very worst kind of expatriate, yelling because things aren't like they are where you came from.

No one wants to be that person.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Perusing the business section today...

...and I notice a headline reading "Etisalat to deepen links in Pakistan". I got a tiny flash of anger as I thought "perhaps Etisalat might deepen its dedication to getting around to hooking up the internet service I ordered March 1".

Not to be a downer or anything...

...and you just know when someone says that they are about to be a downer. But yesterday was one of the weirdest days I can remember. I got some really great news about the health of a friend, 'big exhale' kind of news and went out to celebrate, because that is worth a school night out as far as I am concerned. As I got in the cab to head home, literally just seconds after it accelerated and I'd done another 'phew' with my going-to-be okay pal in the back seat, smiling widely, I got a panicked call from a friend at home. The polar opposite of the news I'd just been celebrating. Stunned, I am, then and today.

Pardon me for asking the unanswerable, but how can this be possible?

So while I appreciate everyone's comments, and I do, you will pardon me if I leave you to discuss who got what bonus or who is making more money or who is a bitter betty and probably found lots to complain about at the last, non-UAE place they worked too, if I could hazard a guess. Those of us who are lucky enough are making a good salary here, we had the opportunity to use Google on the internet machine to get a feel for what it would be like in the UAE before we were lured by the tax free dollars, we all have brains to realise this is not the culture we willingly left behind, we all could have made the sacrifices necessary to hit the honcho track way back when with an eye to making the big bucks and running the show, if we'd really wanted to, if we actually had the guts or thought we were good enough.

We also all get frustrated, and of course, because there is a lot to get frustrated about. Let's just try to remember what's important, k?

Annoying lecture over.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sheikh Zayed: Soothsayer?

Images of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the nation who died in 2004, are all over the place here in a variety of forms. I now plan to more vigorously document them.

When I first saw this one, near my apartment, I thought 'why is Sheikh Zayed holding his head in his hands? Then I realised those were someone else's hands, and his image had been placed in a crystal ball.

Or at least that's how it looks to me.

Snap caption: A strange arrangement at Emirates Palace

Monday, April 20, 2009

Quote of the Day: I really have never seen any monkeys in Abu Dhabi

A draft by-law would ban pets from the Corniche (the beautiful walkway along the Gulf) and Abu Dhabi's parks because they make a "mess".

Apparently there are no regulations on pets - not even that they be on leashes - enforced by the municipality.

"Some people take their dogs to the shopping centres and this can be scary for children," said Amin Youssef, the capital's technical adviser for municipal services. "Some people are even bringing monkeys outside."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The week in review: Now THAT was a party

1. I checked out the Pine Leaf Boys, a Cajun band from Lafayette, Lousiana, at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. I was a little more taken with the Arabic oud player who opened the show, but it was cute to see these young musicians still a bit befuddled about their US State department-organised visit to the Middle East. Then there was the audience, which didn't seem to know what to think, but obviously liked it. The frontman Wilson Savoy was a little befuddled when we all clapped for an encore. "They told me y'all don't do encores. They said if we do encores, everyone would just leave."

2. For the first time, Abu Dhabi Police offer a reward to catch a criminal. Dh50,000 (Cdn16,500) for information on the wherabouts of a man wanted in the death of his wife's friend (CORR "friend's wife) in Al Ain in 2005.

3. A group of experts met in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah to discuss equality when it comes to diyya, or compensation for accidental death, also known as "blood money". Under UAE federal law, anyone who accidentally commits a harmful act that causes the death of another must pay Dh200,000 for male victims. In RAK, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it's the same amount for women's families, but in the other emirates, the obligation usually is to pay half. Obviously this concept, which is not at all unique to the UAE, is far-out foreign to many of us in the Western world. But if you accept that it happens here, by law, for the time being anyway, it's shocking to think there are areas where a woman's life is valued by half to that of a man.

4. Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed takes questions from the media on his official website. Re: the financial crisis? "The worst is over and behind us," he said, adding that no company or bank has declared bankruptcy. Democracy in the UAE? Not so much.

5. The National turned one; most of us are still standing, as is, more importantly, the paper, and on Friday night we all celebrated at the Hiltonia Beach Club. I couldn't believe what a difference a year makes; I crept into the party last year, one day off the plane, not knowing a soul. This year 10 of us spent an the afternoon on an aged yacht watching the Red Bull Air Race over the Corniche before composing ourselves and afterwards, half the newsroom turned up to continue the party at my company flat. Our editor-in-chief Martin Newland gave a stirring speech ("some people have left," he said, "sod them") addressing some of the tougher things that have happened, and told us we have done more in our journalism careers in one year than most people have in a lifetime. Who knows if those words are true; it's definitely very hard to tell most days when you are just slogging through. But as the lights of Marina Mall twinkled across the water, and a warm breeze blew across us, I took them and remained glad I came.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I am going "Inside the National"

I am a little bit excited right now, as I am T-minus two hours away from making my debut on Inside the National where I will talk about what I gleaned from meeting with representatives of Google this morning. (Hint: do not hold your breath for Street View) One can only watch this half-hour program at 7.30pm Sunday through Wednesday on Abu Dhabi TV. Inside the National actually previews stories in the next day's paper and includes interviews with the people writing them. (That the half-hour is not a little more like The Office, UAE style, I assure you, is not for a lack of drama or comedy.)

It may seem like an amazing thing that The National has its own, very well done television program, complete with producer, sound person, several camera operators and two presenters, one of them a former correspondent for the BBC, but I assure you, it's true.

It's been a couple of months, so I have just gotten used to the idea myself.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Check out Al Dhafra, my old 'hood

After 10 glorious months in the Ramee Hotel Apartments (as The National's Jen Gerson reported today, 25% of hotel rooms in Abu Dhabi are being taken up with people waiting for flats or white collar workers here on short-term contracts - no wonder prices are so high) I moved out in February. But I got to spend some loving hours cataloguing the neighbourhood's attributes for a piece in the Saturday paper's House & Home section here. Check it out, there is a nice slide show that gives you a window on one of the small, accessible parts of Abu Dhabi.

In many ways Al Dhafra is Abu Dhabi, scaled down. A mix of new and old villas and converted residences fill the centre of the block, which is bordered by high-rise accommodations, mid-range hotel apartments and those that have seen better days. A quick peek inside a random open door reveals a series of bunk beds, one of the myriad tiny rooms that house the workers who drive the city’s growth.
Safarnas Vellerical, an office worker at a medical insurance company, lives in a room off Muroor. The 24-year-old from Kerala spent a recent evening visiting a friend at the tiny Al Qafila New Gift Trading Store, one of many that fill out his neighbourhood. “The atmosphere is very good,” he says.

I had to get a copy for someone and read it again today; now I kind of miss it over there.

Continuing on with the theme "much of the world seems to be obsessed with having white or whiter skin"

My friends and I were hanging out by the pool at the Sandy Beach Hotel in the emirate of Fujairah (a highly entertaining way to pass an afternoon, just trust me on this) and we almost fell off our beach chairs at the sight of this SPF lotion-loving lady.

I had never seen anything like it. She kept reapplying, and reapplying, so it never had a chance to absorb. That was the point, I think.

(She also smoked, quite a bit, so we figured it wasn't skin cancer she was worried about.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fair & Lovely targets shoppers; insecurity ensues

Skin whitening creams are big business in this part of the world. This was shocking to me at first. I guess I was pretty naive, but the truth is that lighter skin is desired over here and people do odd things to get it.

One of the most popular products (and I often lurk around the display at Lulu Hypermarket, just to see the women and men checking them out) is Fair & Lovely. A commercial plays over here sometimes. It shows a young girl getting ready for a dance competition a month away. She is using Fair & Lovely as well and dancing her heart out, and on the night of her performance, she is clearly a star because of her moves and the lighter tone of her skin. Sigh.

The preponderance of these products is mildly irritating on another level, and that is because it truncates every other line of skin care products. Take Oil of Olay; I can't get my favourite thermal mini-peel here and that's probably because most of their freaking shelf space is taken up by whitening creams and potions.

This is a Fair & Lovely display that was on in Abu Dhabi Mall. I found it disturbing on a number of levels - that one has to be "fair" to be "lovely", for staters – and not least for the creepy "Mirror mirror on the wall" vibe it gave off. I have no idea why these Filipinas are in there.

Conversations with cab drivers

Cab driver: Are you married?

Me: Ummm (hesitating while I decide whether I have the energy to lie) no.

Cab driver: Oh my god.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Overheard in the ladies room at Emirates Palace

Conversation between an adult woman and her mom, who is clearly here for a visit

Adult woman: Do you want to see a movie tonight?

Her mom: Oh, I can see a movie at home.

Adult woman: Should we go get manicures?

Her mom: Oh no, my nails are far too short.

Adult woman: Well we have to do something.

Her mom: Okay, we'll do something.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A little context, Abu Dhabi Distribution Co.

I have just been told "don't call until you arrive" is the slogan for a campaign to stop people using their cell phones while driving. I failed to noticed the tiny triangle, steering wheel and pair of hands to the left of it.

My bad.

Whatever you say, Abu Dhabi Distribution Co.

I got my first water and electricity bill the other day. I am still a) impressed that it is just 75.75 dirhams (or about $25 Canadian) and b) trying to wrap my head around the utility's slogan: "Don't call until you arrive"

Adventures in reporting, part 2

Call to a place, ask can I speak to a woman.

"Maybe," says the operator. "I don't know."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Abu Dhabi to become world's first fully connected capital with new Internet service; frustrated Canadian still waiting for hers

This is the land the puts the cart before the horse, of course. And it's only been a month since I waited at Etisalat, signed up for internet and asked the fellow at the wicket: when will your men be by to hook it up?

"Tomorrow. Or Sunday," he said with a smile. "Inshallah."

Inshallah indeed. You can imagine my surprise when, still waiting - and sooooooo not the only one - I saw this announcement today:

Etisalat puts Abu Dhabi in the ELITE technology league - AUH to become the world's first fully FTTH connected capital with Etisalat's 'eLite'

Posted: 05-04-2009 , 06:29 GMT

Etisalat today announced that Abu Dhabi will become world's first fully connected capital with Etisalat's eLite - the advanced optical fibre communication network, based on the Fiber to the Home (FTTH) technology. Etisalat confirmed that it has reached the final stage of completion of this project, scheduled to be completed in the beginning of Q3 this year. With eLite connecting all the households in Abu Dhabi, the city will become world's first 100% FTTH connected capital. Etisalat is also in the process of connecting Dubai and Sharjah through eLite.
Etisalat’s eLite, the fibre to the home (FTTH) based network is considered to be the most advanced technology globally, for connecting homes. eLite will provide high speed broadband internet to the households, opening infinite new options for home entertainment such as high definition (HD) video service quality and clarity, video on demand (VoD) and Online Gaming. Moreover, eLite will also open up innovative business avenues like e-education and online health check-ups.

But there is hope. If I am reading this press release right, by the beginning of July, I will definitely have my wireless hooked up.

Friday, April 3, 2009

And about the blog

One year in Abu Dhabi means one year keeping this blog - I forgot! I was already practised in the fine art of writing random bits of slightly entertaining nothingness online regularly, as I had kept a blog in Canada as part of my job for 18months previous.

I got used to it, and I liked it. But I've liked it even more here. And with the help of Google Analytics, every day I can check and see how many other people like it too. Some might say obsessively. I am chuffed to say it's getting close to 100 people a day... sometimes more, sometimes less, and though most are from the UAE and Canada, people are checking in from 50 other countries as well.

So how now Azerbaijan and Vietnam, Senegal and Bulgaria. I won't ask how you found the blog or why. I'll only say I'm glad you did. And thanks to everyone who pays a little bit of attention, now and then, and the others who take the time to make a comment or two. And to my good friends back home who read too, like Trish and JP and Tracy and Pam and Amber and Mike and Vanessa and Bethany and forgive me for anyone I forgot. I miss you guys, tons.

And although I have yet to land a book deal - and curse the rolling ball of negativity who planted that idea in my head (joking Auckland!) - it's my tiny passion nonetheless, and that is a good thing to have in this world, especially so far from home.


Quote of the day

"Our education is where it is. Painful or not, at least we will know where we stand and then we can begin to improve."

-Dr Abdullah al Karam, the director general of Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which oversees Dubai's, speaking after the first school inspection reports were published

Thursday, April 2, 2009

10 random facts about life in the UAE, in celebration of my one-year Abu-versary. I never thought I would make it; I did.

1. Just about everyone has a mobile phone, really, there are very few land lines, and most of them walk around clutching it. For a reporter who battles all sorts of daily barriers to information, this is a sweet consolation prize.

2. They pickle everything here, from potatoes to carrots. I think I have even seen turnip. They come in tasty, salty little bundles with your lunch. At first it's weird, then eventually you just eat it.

3. If you live here, your employer will be involved in your life to an extent you did not think possible, and you will either drive yourself mental, or accept it, or mostly accept it and sometimes let it drive you mental. As it did this week and I'm sure will again.

4. Emirati women who marry men who are not from the UAE cannot pass on citizenship to their children, although the Minister of Foreign Affairs has just signalled this can't go on.

5. If a couple of people do something that is against the law, they are quickly dubbed "a gang"; criminal cases are also often given great names. My favourite was "the case of the non-existent wallet".

6. Expats require a "letter of no objection" (meaning your company, which is involved in your life to an extent you did not think possible, does not object to you doing something) to: get electricity hooked up, a driver's license, an alcohol license and, oddly, as a friend found out, to get back a wallet that has been lost and turned in to a local police station.

7. There are no self-serve gas stations (they tried last summer; it has not really caught on)

8. Filipinos tend to sing a lot, out loud, wherever they are; taxi drivers from Pakistan like surprisingly sappy music, Emiratis often leave the plastic covering on their fancy car seats, people from Lebanon say "yanni" (a version of 'um') more than I thought possible and those who speak English as a second, third or whatever language generally say "too much" when they mean "a lot". In other gross generalisations I never before would have felt comfortable making, normal British people really do call each other "darling" (and also, in my opinion, WAY overuse the word "literally") and many Canadians, myself included, can not stop saying 'eh' at the end of everything no matter how much they try or how long they are sequestered from each other.

9. The male cleaner at work will enter the woman's bathroom at any time he feels like it, to clean, and there is nothing me or anyone else can do to stop it.

10. Even after a year, apparently, some of us here at The National cannot get enough of the foliage, band or people at Safari, the jungle-like Filipino bar at the top of the Howard Johnson Hotel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A relic from the 70s, it has to be, at the corner store

I don't want to gross anyone out or anything, but I noticed this box of maxi pads - the belted kind! how retro! - at the store by my place and had to share. The guy was soooo happy I was taking a picture of his product.

I often say "this place is still in the 70s" to explain some of the more bizarre things I encounter. When I saw this, I felt it to be very true.

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 ...