Tuesday, June 30, 2009

So July 1 isn't special for everyone, I get that

I was chatting with a British friend on Skype tonight who asked if I was going to join a group watching the tennis tomorrow, and I explained that while I will be at the same bar (this is Abu Dhabi, after all) I will be there celebrating Canada Day with a bunch of, you know, Canadians.

Me: How could you forget?

Her: Actually, I didn't. I was just hoping you would be more excited about Wimbledon and say yes.

Me: It's pretty hard to trump Canada Day.

Her: Well .....

Happy Canada Day!

Canada Day 2008, the dock, Blue Sea Lake, Quebec (also known as my favourite place on earth)

The Summer Olympics in Dubai? Seriously?

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, has come out to say the emirate is going to look seriously at making a bid to host the 2020 Summer Games. No one who is in the UAE at the moment can actually believe this, and not just because the minute you walk outside your glasses fog up and it becomes difficult to breathe. And it's only June.

No doubt this would a boon to Dubai and the UAE (although I am not really sure the Emirates want the world's spotlight on their labour and human rights record, although things could have changed a lot by then). But... seriously? How can anyone think this will fly? I am really not the defeatist sort, but there is a reason the Summer Games are not held in this region and it seems insurmountable. Qatar made a bid for the 2016 Summer Games, but their proposal was to move it to the fall, and that doesn't really merge with the interests of the television broadcasters or the athlete's training schedules.

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

...I have been reading From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi, a 190-page book by Mohammed Al-Fahim, for 14 months.

I am on page 135, having stalled at Aug 6, 1966: the day Sheikh Zayed becomes ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sugar Daddy's does Michael Jackson cupcakes

Sugar Daddy's is an awesome cupcake shop in Dubai I highly recommend - just last week an intern brought us in a three-pack, and I devoured a red velvet version. Quick-thinking staff too: on Friday they whipped up these babies, just hours after the news broke and well before the radio stations started playing his music wall-to-wall.

Via Cupcakes Take the Cake (my new favourite non-UAE blog).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Snap caption: My first parking ticket

Now if only I knew how much it was for...

Today my internet was connected, a few days shy of the four-month anniversary of me ordering it

And I thought getting Showtime hooked up was a comedy of errors:

7.19am call
"Ma'am it's Matthew from Etisalat, can I come now?

7.45am call
"Ma'am can I have your internet account number?"

8.15am call
"Ma'am where do you live?" (he's been here before) A five minute conversation ensues where I give directions to my flat, which includes mention of four main arterial roads, a laundry and the furnishings store on the main floor.

8.30am call
"Across from Zayed University?"

Matthew arrives

"Ma'am where is your watchman? Because the internet is not working."

He tells me my computer is configured, it's communicating with the router, but someone has fiddled with my line in "the telephone room" and it's broken. He goes to find the watchman while I try to phone the building manager.

10am Matthew comes back, having found my watchman (and kudos, because I have never been able to) but been unable to communicate with him.

10.01am I phone the watchman, he yells every time I speak, I think in Urdu, and I hang up in frustration.

10.02am I phone a friend who speaks Urdu to get her to phone the watchman.

10.03am She calls the watchman, calls back and says she is not sure what language he was speaking, he yelled every time she spoke, so she yelled as well, but she believes he is now standing in the lobby.

10.05am Matthew goes down to meet the watchman, several minutes pass, I suddenly get four green lights on the assortment of Etisalat gear that decorates the corner of my apartment. A feeling of great peace washes over me.

10.06am Matthew, who is from India, comes back to tell me that my internet is working, that the watchman is from Pakistan, he is "very difficult" to deal with, suggesting he is tired because he is the watchman for too many buildings, he probably has Arab bosses that are "only interested in money", "big problems... people are very unhappy", and also that Etisalat has sub-contracted "Chinese" people to do their connection work who "don't know what they are doing" and it's quite likely they will cut my line in "the telephone room" again, as he believes they have since he was last here. (I marvel, yet again, at how prominently nationality features here in Abu Dhabi, and wonder, yet again, if somehow living here could make me some sort of racist just by sheer exposure)

Anyhoo, if the thing goes on the fritz, says Matthew, I need to call 101, Etislat's handy "help" line. (Quotations mine) Normally mention of the "101" line in reference to Etisalat makes me apoplectic, but today I have four green dots and an internet connection. For the first time since March 4 and really, in the 14 months that I have lived here, I won't have to haul my laptop to Starbucks or stay late at work anymore to talk to my friends and write on my blog and go on Facebook or read Perez Hilton and Bourque and CBC and the Globe and Mail and The Onion, and go to catsthatlooklikehitler.com or YouTube or DailyOm.com any other dumb thing I feel like doing online, and that is all that matters. So I smile and say "thank you" and decide I will worry about the internet NOT working another day. Like when it's not working.

10.20am The watchman knocks on my door and asks why I was calling him. "Etisalat problem," he says.

It's okay, I say, thank you, and shut the door.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Almost every night, at about 8.30pm

I've switched to a new job as a news editor, one that has me here in the evenings. There are thousands of stray cats in Abu Dhabi, some of them cute, some of them like this guy.

And one thing I've learned we can be sure of is that this cat will wander in the newsroom during the shift (possibly making a foray into the rafters back by the kitchen), that he will make a lot of noise, and several people will gather around him, and one of them will succeed in coaxing him out.

Snap caption: Sheikh Zayed, father of the nation

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Little things entertain us here

... including new restaurants and grocery stores opening. It seems like just yesterday that the One to One hotel opened, fairly near the office. It's been weeks, but still, all it takes is a walk into the beer garden to stumble across at least two other tables from The National before I find the friends I came to meet.

So while it may seem odd, much of the office is abuzz with the fun news that a popular Australian upscale grocery chain, Jones, is opening up just across the street. I am sold purely on their offer of a "walk in cheese room". On Friday I was invited to brunch there, and it is not yet open.

It's that time of year again...

... people are saying a lot of things like "see you in September" – which makes me panic, cause I am not going anywhere until at least mid-August – and it's getting hotter and hotter. I am not sure if it's worse this year knowing how hot it is going to get, but everyone around me is preparing for the 50Cs that are to come. Many of us have hunkered down with entire seasons of DVDs to watch - I am peeling through various seasons of Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Dexter, and Mad Men, not to mention the fabulous British shows Peep Show and Pulling, trying to avoid spoilers that are everywhere. (For example just this morning I read that Daniel Faraday was shot by his mother, which bends my mind and also makes me cranky, as he still very much alive - although speeding through time, of course - in the Lost episodes I've got going; also I just read that Mad Men's Don Draper's wife is pregnant and the baby is his, despite her fling, grrr). I've also joined a tiny gym two minutes from my house, and buy one-off fitness classes from another, rented a car with a friend to make navigating the searing oven that much easier and booked a holiday home to Canada. Oh, and ice skating, but more on that later. The important thing is to avoid gaining 5 kilos, like I did last summer, and still have not gone much of the way toward losing. You see, a weird depression starts to set in when a person has had no fresh air for three or four weeks.

A loopiness - we are all worried about it. No wonder most Emiratis leave.

Another colleague has bought an exercise machine and declared that he is "going nocturnal". A friend bought some fish, lots of them. Someone else dug out his big floppy hat, and has been wearing it. As usual, many people continue to drink heavily. And suddenly the radio weather reports - "another hot and muggy one today" – are funny, as is hearing dry British colleagues remark to each other "warm one today, isn't it?"

I've been chatting with a fellow who is considering coming to Abu Dhabi for a job, and he was telling me some high heat one-liners, which I liked. (Submissions welcome, by the way)

I am reminded of when I first told my brother more than a year ago that it looked like I might move here; "Annie," he said, "it's like 50 degrees there in the summer." I brushed it off, as you do all negatives when you really want to do something. I won't say I wouldn't have come if I knew what 50 degrees felt like (or 55, actually).

I'm just scared to feel it again, that's all.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

She's been called the Muslim Dr Ruth

There was a great piece in the New York Times earlier this month that I just stumbled on, about Wedad Lootah, a marital counselor at Dubai's main courthouse who has written a frank book of erotic advice. Rooted in the Quran, published in January here in Arabic, Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples is proving controversial, to put it mildly.

"People have said I was crazy, that I was straying from Islam, that I should be killed," Ms Lootah said. "Even my family ask why I must talk about this. I say: 'These problems happen every day and should not be ignored. This is the reality we are living'."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Paris Hilton is in Dubai, right now!

Now if this was my old paper, the Ottawa Sun, we'd slap a Sens jersey on her and put her on the front page tomorrow. The National? I suspect it will be somewhere inside. And let's hope the hotel heiress has covered up.

Apparently she's here to shoot the second season of her reality show, Paris Hilton's My New BFF. The disdain is palpable.

When I go home later this summer, my birthday package from May 2008 will be waiting for me

I was terribly homesick in the months after moving here, and on my birthday last year, looked forward to care packages shipped over by my oldest friend, and also my brother and his wife. I carefully noted the newspaper's address - my new colleagues all seemed to be receiving mail quite frequently – and waited for a bit of home.

And waited. And waited. By July it was clear there was a problem. My brother did not keep receipts for anything in his package, which included entire seasons of DVDS. My friend on the other hand, had kept receipts for almost everything: books, special organic bars I love, a cool T-shirt, and was incensed that basically the best birthday package ever had, as it seemed, been stolen somewhere between Toronto and Abu Dhabi.

No one tried to send me anything for my birthday this year, and really, I don't blame them. Also, I have been unable to let go of the idea that one or both of those packages might some day arrive. For months I would look up hopefully when the deliveries came, shaking my head over boxes that would land on my colleagues' desks, wondering what they did right that I had gotten so, so wrong. I rushed out and paid for an Aramex account, which gives me PO boxes in the US and UK and, although it costs a fortune, guarantees I will get what's coming to me.

Anyway, just before Christmas, after much wrangling, Canada Post came through with a full refund for all the items in my friend had bought me. And then, 14 months after it was shipped, miracles of miracles, the package itself turned up back at her house in Milton Ontario. She wrote, and I quote: "everything was still there, a little beat up and dirty but all together. i obviously threw the power bars right out. i will keep the rest for you!! so exciting i can hardly stand it! it was like christmas opening it. there is still hope your brother's parcel may still be returned to him."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kids - and adults – love snowballs, even in the desert

There is one thing you can count on during a visit to Ski Dubai, in the Mall of the Emirates: that besides people skiing and snowboarding down the man-made indoor hill, there will be kids of all ages playing in the snow at the bottom. I was watching through the window on Friday when some of them started throwing snowballs at me.

Speaking of scary...

... Previously I have been scared to death of these vans, having only watched them hurtling down the highway. But last weekend took one of them to Dubai - me and 14 men. It's actually pretty cool. You wander over to the bus station on Muroor Road, find the men yelling "Dubai, Dubai", hand them 20 dirhams and get in.

The driver was very safe (and did not seem at all sleepy, as has been my fear) and even dropped me off on the side of the road by Mall of the Emirates so I didn't have to double back from the Dubai bus station to the marina. I couldn't find evidence of a seatbelt, though, so there's that.

Yikes! I knew I was lucky to be alive

Having scraped up a rental car last week, a mere 2.5 hours after getting behind the wheel – and having a friend who was rear-ended on the WAY HOME from picking up the used Mercedes he had just bought – and, well, just having eyes in my head, I am not at all shocked by a slew of recent stories about the mayhem on UAE roads.

I have seen some of the most shocking manouvres as a passenger here. Early one morning I watched from a taxi as a motorcycle screamed past down a main thoroughfare on its front wheel, its driver seemingly hovering in the air behind it. A Lexus SUV passed our car in the fast lane on the highway - but not the way you might think, instead on the inside lane that is not really a lane. We call it "undertaking", for obvious reasons, and it is very scary when it happens to you. I can't count how many times I've seen a group of cars mimicking something they must have seen in a Fast and the Furious installment; and don't get a driver mad, either. He will drive right behind your car, flash his lights, even try to force you off the road. If I hadn't seen all this myself, I wouldn't believe it. (It's also good to remember NEVER to give someone the finger, or even APPEAR to give someone the finger, or even, actually, gesture at all at someone, or risk jail time)

On Monday WHO released its Global Status Report on Road Safety, which found that UAE road users are seven times more likely to die than those in the UK. And you are just as likely to die outside a vehicle - pedestrians make up 28 per cent of casualties. In Abu Dhabi, 38 people die in road wrecks every month.

Another problem here involves people not wearing seatbelts. Almost every car has a bunch of kids standing up in the back seat - I once watched a child with his head perched near the gearshift, his head and shoulders poking out through the sun roof. People are not big fans of child seats either; it's pretty common to see moms travelling with toddlers and babies in their laps.

And even though there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving, people still do it. I've yet to see anything like a RIDE program.

Here's hoping that stuff will start to change.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Saudi official speaks, says there is no real reason for truck backlog

The most bizarre and appalling situation has been brewing 350km from Abu Dhabi, at the Al Ghuwafait border crossing into Saudi Arabia, where this week a line of more than 8,000 vehicles waited to pass. Drivers have spent up to five days in baking 50C heat - some laying under their trucks for some relief from the relentless sun.

Heat exhaustion, fights, from frayed nerves and general desperation have set in. Can you imagine how depressing it would be? These men can't leave their trucks. It's a miracle someone has not died. The situation has been attributed to some sort of escalation in security measures to prevent smuggling, but last night a Saudi Ministry of the Interior official said that wasn't the case, things had just gotten a little backed up, is all.

Meanwhile the government has dispatched volunteer teams from the Red Crescent Authority (the Middle East's Red Cross) to hand out food and water, and private businesses and citizens have driven down there to hand out ice and assorted items as well. The head of operations called the situation "dangerous" while an emergency room doctor in Sila, a nearby town, said it was verging on an humanitarian crisis. One man was brought to the ER covered in sand; he been hallucinating that he was swimming in the sea. Officials from both sides are to meet in Riyadh today on the issue.

And trucks continue to join the queue, which has ranged in length from 12 to 32km.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Does this not seem like quite a lot of gear for an internet connection...

... let alone one that doesn't function?

The laundry keeps misplacing my clothes...

...something I only realise when I go to put something on. Sure, sure, I could buy a washing machine and do them myself, but it seems like a lot of work and I've grown to enjoy having everything washed and pressed. When I try to explain the clothes I am missing to the men at the laundry, all I get are blank stares. So last night I printed out these pictures that I found on the internet and took them in. I still don't have them, but it makes me feel proactive.

Hey Dubizzle, welcome to Abu Dhabi

Now everyone can go online to find an outrageously expensive apartment.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Conversational snippet from a night in Dubai

"We're here to make money. We're not here to make the world right."

-American expat businessman

Etisalat, I try to understand you, but you make it so very difficult OR long and probably crazy rant about how I can't get an internet connection

Living in the UAE tests the patience from time to time - most of us who have moved here accept that and do our best to cope. But in the 14 months I've lived here nothing has quite tested my patience – not to be too dramatic, but at times my very sanity – like trying to get an internet connection. Etisalat is, quite simply, the most discombobulated company I have ever had the misfortune to become involved with.

Some 3.5 months ago I wandered into the Etisalat offices on Muroor Road to sign up for a wireless connection. As the fellow behind the big, granite desk filled in my user card I had an intuitive moment. "This isn't going to happen," something deep inside said.

And it didn't. I called. I called again. I called more times. I yelled into the phone. When I can flip open my lap top to see a half-dozen of my neighbours' connections (locked - I would steal them to avoid aggravation, oh yes I would, in a heartbeat), when the fellow who lived in the apartment just 3.5 months ago had a wireless connection, hearing "there is a problem with your port, ma'am" over and over started to turn me into a mentalist.

On one particularly memorable call, I had this exchange with an attendant:

ME: "So a technician will be coming?"

HIM: "Yes."

ME: "When?"

HIM: "Tomorrow. (pause) Or next week (longer pause) - "

ME: (Thinking) Don't you dare say it

HIM: "Inshallah."

I went down to the Virgin counter in Abu Dhabi Mall, because my friends told me the Filipino guy with the shaved head who works there really knows what's going on - perhaps more than any of Etisalat's own employees. He told me I should go to the head office, cancel my first service, and then come back down to him and sign up again. Can't you just cancel it? I asked. No ma'am, he replied. Then, the morning after I returned from Australia, a knock on the door.

"We're here to hook up your internet ma'am". Filled with hope, I set to making coffee and let them get to work. Several minutes passed. "Ma'am?" I heard. "Ma'am, we cannot hook up your internet."

ME: "Why?"

THEM: "Because you have no connection."

ME: "Yyou can't hook up my internet connection, because I have no connection?"

THEM: "Yes ma'am."

Turns out the dudes were from an Etisalat team that is switching the building over from copper to fibreoptics. I cannot get either, apparently.

I spent 2.5 hours at Etisalat's head office on Airport Road last week, which was eye-opening, if not fruitful or resulting in an internet connection. As you can see, it's a shiny lovely building. That's nice, I thought, as I was shuttling between the fourth and third floors. Third floor to sign up, fourth floor to see about the application, third floor so they can call the engineer.

"I am sorry," I overheard a weary-looking expat man say to one of the attendants. "It's just that I spend so many hours here."

For awhile, I chatted with Fayyed. He was there with his little boy, and told me he has been paying monthly visits for more than a year now. In May 2008, Etisalat overcharged him for 610 dirhams - about $150 Cdn. It has never been repaid. Are you ever going to give up? I asked.

"Maybe," he said, looking at his seven-year-old, who sat swinging his legs under the chair. "But I am better off with it. I'll buy a toy for my kid. He likes yo-yos."

I watched as another woman gathered up her bags and stormed off from her wicket, rolling her eyes, shaking her head and exhaling loudly. Having a total strop, basically.

The morning after the head office marathon, as my blood pressure levels had just started to return to normal, I had an early morning knock on the door. Three men holding boxes of things were outside. "We are from Etisalat ma'am," said their leader. "We are here about the internet connection."

Instantly hopeful again, I let them straight in, failing to realise I was still in pyjamas. Again, I set about making coffee, perhaps whistled a snippet of a happy tune. Until ...

THEM: "Ma'am?"

ME: "Yes?"

THEM: "Ma'am, we cannot hook up the internet connection."

ME: "Why?"

THEM: "Because ma'am you don't have an internet connection."

An hour later as I headed out to go to the gym, another Etisalat fibre-optic enabler approached me. "I need to set up your internet connection," he said. "You are this flat?"

"Please don't knock on my door again," I said, wearily. Defeated, even.

He knocked on my neighbour Tom's next, and as the elevator doors closed, I could hear Tom saying "you've already been here – you've already hooked it up."

I spent a half-hour on the phone this week, alternately yelling - yes I was yelling - and pleading with the woman on the other end. This is where my sanity really started to waver, as I heard myself saying things like "I am very far from home and I need internet" and "can I just ask you, YOU, to care about my case and make sure something is done?" She explained it appeared as though I had just signed up for it the day before, and not in March, and it would be at least 10 days before I would see a technician. That's when I, a grown woman who more than a year ago got on an airplane with four suitcases for parts unknown all by myself, hung up the phone. And cried.

"That's it," I told my friend at work. "I give up. I am never getting it."

The next day at 7am I had a call from Matthew, an Etisalat employee. He was wondering when he could come back to hook me up. For real - not a fibreoptic pipe dream.

I'd like to tell you I have internet access. I don't. Matthew did spend two hours at my apartment on Thursday, installing gadgets and boxes and wires that don't seem to be connected to anything or communicating with my laptop in any discernable manner. At one point he asked how to find his USB stick on my desktop; I sighed and showed him, and then told him I had to get back to work. Ducking out for what was promised to be a 20-minute endeavor and failing to return had severely spiked my cortisol levels.

Nonetheless, I have his mobile number, and he assures me he will come back, at my convenience, and sort this *&^%ing (profanity mine) business out. Parting words, from dear, sweet Matthew?

"Etisalat is working for you."

You just don't really see buildings like this going up anywhere else these days, do you?

I was driving back from Dubai the other day and was well impressed with progress on the Yas Marina Hotel, which will be the centrepiece of the Formula One circuit when the races come to town in November. At night the entire exterior will change colour, and though you can't really see it, an inverted 'V' at the base of the hotel sits over the track, meaning during the race the cars will pass right under it.

Apparently though this is going to be one of those hotels where you can't just wander in, but need to prove you have a reservation or a room to get onto the premises.

A few choice words from WAM, the state news agency

From a story about the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department adopting the latest techniques in risk management:

"Risk management works on controlling risks and reducing them though adopting a series of proven strategies and tactics."

Snap caption: If you say so

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Overheard at the Etisalat office

"Do you want me to sketch it for you?"

-There is no workable addressing system in Abu Dhabi - although one is apparently in the works – which is why I laughed when I heard a woman say this as she tried to impart just where it is she lived to a staffer coming to hook up her telephone.

Snap caption: If only it were that easy

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An idea, not necessarily a good one

I don't smoke shisha, having been thrown into coughing fits whenever I've tried, but what I gather from all the men whiling the nights away in the city's cafes is that it is supposed to be a relaxing activity. That is why I noticed when M, the magazine, did a brief piece on the weekend about a new product from Japan's Mitsuba Corporation: the portable shisha pipe.

It would make my day to spot someone walking around with this unit strapped around them.

So many times I can't quite sort out what exactly is going on

... like where everyone lives, exactly. My neighbourhood, dubbed the Water Tank area, is crammed with apartment buildings that like much of Abu Dhabi have shops and restaurants on the main floor. Yet the people who work in those shops and restaurants most likely don't live in the apartments above them, at least I don't think they do, because the rent for those apartments is outrageous.

More likely they live in rooms, cramped spaces, in between the shops and restaurants. (We already know labourers, taxi drivers and many of the other men that fuel the Emirates' development have less than desirable situations going on, and often deplorable ones) I am always catching men coming out of doors – doors they quickly shut whenever they see me – and trying to catch a glimpse inside. Whenever I am successful, I see sinks, bunk beds, shoes, mats – all the signs of people cramped together in not-very-nice quarters with nary a window. And whenever I ask people, say taxi drivers or the guy at the corner store, where they live, they seem to say "a room near Muroor".

Which is why I ponder this, a coat rack, placed in an alley just around the corner from my flat, outside one such door. There are always clothes hanging on it like this. Note the sandals nearby. Someone has left them to turn in for the night.

Can you imagine living in a place so small a coat rack wouldn't fit inside?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

In the Middle East, even a "free cat" poster turns political

Heartbreak: Just one of the 228 brutal stories of loss to emerge out of the Air France crash

Ana Negra Barrabeig was in the last days of her honeymoon when she apparently decided not to fly right back to Dubai, where she'd lived for 2.5 years and worked with her new husband at Oliver Wyman, a management consultancy. She left Rio de Janeiro and headed to Spain to catch up with family for a couple of days before going back to work.

Her new husband, Javier Alvarez, hopped on his flight, only to be met at the Dubai International Airport by two colleagues, bearing another ticket back to Spain and the horrible news her plane had disappeared.

Back in the UAE, where it is a good idea to periodically remind oneself that adultery and sex outside of marraige are actually against the law

It's easy to forget that you are living in a strict Muslim country in the UAE, it really is. After all, you can go to bars, you can buy alcohol with a license, you can show your shoulders if you are a woman, although you really shouldn't out of respect, even though it is getting very hot. Heck, you can even buy pork at Spinneys!

But a few headlines this week have people who are living together, but aren't married, or fooling around on their partners, and there are lots of them, looking over their shoulder. In Sharjah an Emirati man and his young South African employee were jailed and charged with having sex outside of marraige after they were found after hours in a dive shop during a late-night police raid last month. The woman was sentenced to three months in jail, the man six. They have appealed the sentences.

In the northern emirate of Ajman, a married Filipina woman was sentenced to one month in jail, and subsequent deportation, for having an affair. The woman accused the man of raping her, but a subsequent police investigation found he was her boyfriend and the relationship was consensual. Hrmmm.

A British mother of two, Sally Antia, 43, faces up to three years in prison and deportation after admitting adultery. She and her alleged lover, who have been in jail for weeks, were nabbed by police outside the Radisson Blu hotel. They were acting on a complaint from her husband. Mark Hawkins, who met her on the Internet before flying out, makes the understatement of the year when he tells the Daily Telegraph "I won't be coming to Dubai on holiday again".

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ahhhhhh Australia, Part 2

I think one of my favourite cities in the world might be Sydney. Coming from Abu Dhabi, where the Gulf is often obscured by five-star hotels, and to eat a nice meal or go to a pub you can only go to those hotels, I am sure I would be attracted to any centre that offered such a thriving street life. It was fabulous have breakfast outside in the autumn chill, looking onto a small market and then wandering over to buy some jewellery, watching people mill up and down beg for change and dress strangely and drink beer, right out in the open. I felt strangely at home there.

I also loved The Rocks, the nifty section under the bridge, and all the skateboarders and relentlessly healthy people working out in a pretty deserted Bondi Beach. Again we met the nicest people everywhere we went. We found Sydney to be very short on three things though: hand towels in bathrooms, garbage cans and pay phones. We stayed in King's Cross, which some people said would be dodgy but I found awesome. I learned that when a bartender at a restaurant called Spice I Am says "you'll be alright" to our question of whether the Asian food would be too spicy, it might be best not to blindly believe him so as to avoid torching one's esophogeal tract before a night out. Also, frangelico and fresh lime is a surprisingly delicious drink.

Back on the Gold Coast, we headed up to Mt Warning and started to climb it but realised we didn't have enough time before darkness descended. I stopped a couple of times, and I tried my best to soak up the feeling of being in a lush, rich rainforest, because I knew it would be awhile before I could have the sensation again.

I can't believe how dressed up the young Aussie girls get to go out – either in Coolangatta or Sydney. I am talking prom-dress, fashion-magazine getups, with the shortest skirts and highest heels you can imagine. Who has the time, or inclination? It was fun to watch them tottering around though. Aussies like to say "sweet as" when they like something, and now so do I. Oh, it it was back on the Gold Coast where I proceeded to frighten my friend with an inability to grasp driving on the opposite side of the road. She claimed I was hitting branches and veering too close to the outside edge; I maintain she was exaggerating. The clincher came the morning after a raucous night out in Byron Bay, when I pulled the wrong way into a handicapped spot and was promptly reminded of it by the nicest woman walking with a cane. Trying to back out of that spot with a pounding headache was one of the most challenging parts of the trip.

We wrapped up with that amazing night in Byron Bay, where I saw live music that did not involve a Filipino cover band - no offense, Safari and Blue Bay – and ended up at a two-story nightclub called Cocomangas, one that took my picture when I entered the bar. Apparently hooliganism is a big problem down under, mostly because of the drink, and they take the pics in case I cause trouble and try to come back. "Glassing" is also apparently another issue, with attacks from broken glasses prompting a discussion about a move to plastic, but thankfully I didn't experience any of that. Just a lot of local hospitality and warmth from most everyone.

One of the best parts of the trip was a pretty awesome barefoot walk on Byron Beach the next day, where I learned about this strange thing crabs do with the sand, and wished I didn't have to leave quite so soon.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ahhhhhhh, Australia, Pt 1

Sunset in Coolangatta, Gold Coast, Australia

I encourage anyone to visit this fabulous country, even in autumn, as it is one I endeavor to get back to as soon as I can. I say this despite being sequestered in my friend's Rainbow Bay flat for the better part of the first week, as 30-year record rains pelted – and I do mean pelted, I have never seen such a prolonged torrential downpour – the Gold Coast. The first day, not wanting to waste any time, my friend and I took a bus up to Surfer's Paradise, which was very Daytona Beach-esque and frankly not much of a paradise under those conditions. The next day a man died there, after a sign blew off and through his office window, killing him with the resulting shards of glass. You just never know, do you?

Luckily I was with the very best kind of friend, the one who laughs about pretty much everything. We briefly contemplated dressing up and posing at one of those old fashioned picture joints tourist towns are famous for, but decided $50 was too steep. I bought a tiny kangeroo, a requested souvenir for a friend, even though I never saw one the whole entire trip, and we went to a pub called Waxy's and had a couple of pints, and ate a pizza. Then we bought ice cream (honeycomb flavour Maxi bons, a snack so good a Facebook page dedicated to it has almost 16,000 fans) and ate it huddled under a bus shelter waiting to go home. Soaking. That was the last time we were adventurous in the storm.

Do not even get me started on pies, which people eat after the bar instead of pizza or poutine or shwarma or any other late night snack. Chicken and avocado, steak, pecan.... Yummmmmmmmm.

On another night, we sat drinking wine by candlight, the sound of the wind whipping around us, punctuated as the occasional roof ripped off. We slept and watched movies and laughed about stupid stuff, and because I live in hot, humid and dusty Abu Dhabi where it has already been more than 50C this summer, I didn't really mind that the first week of my holiday was heralded by 300mm of rain. After all, at least we didn't have to get evacuated due to flooding, as were two towns near by. And after the rain came, we went out to survey the wreckage. Huge old trees upended, a dirty, foamy surf washing over most of the beaches in the areas, branches everywhere. The cutest old man stopped us on the way back from Pt Danger to ask "is that tree I saw turned over on the telly still up there?" I still think about him, watching the news at home, probably from an easy chair, and then deciding to venture out into the wet and wind to see for himself. It makes me smile.

I spent much of the two weeks on the Gold Coast. My friends live in Tweed Heads, NSW, right on the border with Queensland. So the town is split into two towns, the other being Coolangatta. This makes things interesting during parts of the year when one is an hour ahead of the other. Don't ask me to explain which one. Actually, Australia must really have a record when it comes to time zones. More than Canada, it seems. I'm not looking it up though.

Already I miss walking on the beach, the delish organic restaurant Raw Energy and the wild turkeys. Yes, wild turkeys the size of dogs. The greenery and the trees, which I always took for granted before moving to the desert. There is just no way to replicate that slight nip in the air - even when it's less hot in Abu Dhabi, in the winter, you just don't get that. I didn't realize how much I miss wide open space, and clean air, and puttering around a flat with the doors open, birds squawking away outside, and rarely experiencing air conditioning and, let's face it, feeling confident that I would have to do something quite wrong to get arrested helps a lot with the whole relaxation factor. Barely anyone smokes, unlike here, where everyone does, and it's not allowed inside anywhere – completely lovely. There are loads of these cars about, too, which made me feel like I was back in the 70s.

The people are the friendliest I've found - there was barely a cashier or taxi driver who didn't ask all about us. Unlike here in the UAE, no one mistook me for an Australian. Several people told me they thought my accent was "beautiful", which was funny, because it of course does not seem to me like I even have an accent. Also, the Gold Coast might be one of the most laid-back areas I have ever been. Many people don't wear shoes. I lurked by some soup in Woolworth's to get this shot.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Vintage week ends: My favourite marathoner

The Ottawa Sun
May 21, 2003

Kenyan Joseph Nderitu won the 42-km 2003 National Capital Marathon 10 days ago by running it in two hours and 15 minutes.
When he crossed the finish line, amidst loud cheers and camera flashes, 28-year-old Angela Stiles, a flight attendant from Dartmouth, N.S., was still 45 minutes from the halfway mark.
Stiles started running during a 5K clinic in the fall of 2001 and finished the half-marathon in Ottawa last year with no problem. But she knew her first marathon wouldn't be easy, or quick. A cold which had plagued her for weeks meant she hadn't been able to complete a training run longer than 24 km. When she and her husband Craig left the starting gate, she'd simply been hoping to finish in under six hours.
By the halfway mark of Ottawa's strange double-loop race course, when she hit that awful psychological hump of retracing every step she'd made since the gun fired, Stiles could only walk. She noticed the chip detector and much of the race equipment had already been taken down. She knew she was last and realized her six-hour goal was shot.
The first tears came a little later, when a race volunteer asked how she was doing. She couldn't imagine finishing.
In despair, Stiles ran into one-half of the couple that accompanied her and her husband to Ottawa for the race weekend. They walked together for about 4 km until her spirits had lifted a little. Her friend asked if Stiles would forgive herself if she quit. Stiles said no, and promised to meet her on the other side of the canal.
At 26K, with several blisters on both feet making each step excruciating, Stiles had to stop at a medical station. After that, one of the race's medical personnel, Heidi, started biking slowly beside her. She never left.
When driving rain kicked in at 31K, Heidi pulled out her rain gear. Someone in a car stopped to give Angela a poncho.
As they started closing in on 42K, Heidi radioed ahead with Angela's finish-line wishes -- because by now she knew she would cross it, no matter how long it took -- that everyone could go home except the person with her medal and someone to tend to her blisters.
At 41K, Stiles started joking with her bike escorts -- now not just Heidi, but Andrew, John and Nick -- that she was going to pack it in. They replied they'd all drag her across the finish line, if they had to.
By now a police cruiser was travelling behind her, followed by a long line of cars. Stiles worried about holding up traffic; Heidi told her not to.
The race crew had taken down the finish line but left the overhead clock up for Stiles. Her bike-riding entourage and a few officials started cheering. When Stiles finally finished, six hours, 42 minutes and 50 seconds after she started, she collapsed into tears. She hugged Heidi. And she couldn't believe it was over.
Her husband -- who'd finished more than two hours earlier -- and her friends weren't there because someone said she'd been pulled off the course and they'd gone back to the hotel to look for her.
But Stiles, an energetic, bubbly dynamo who is a licenced pilot in addition to her job as an Air Canada Jazz flight attendant, said she wouldn't have had it any other way. Heidi was the one who helped her finish the race, she explained over the phone, still recovering at home a few days later, providing silent strength and companionship when she needed it most. It was fitting she be there when it was over.
And though Stiles says she had some hard times in the days since the marathon too -- after all, someone has to be last but no one wants ever wants to be -- she'd clearly put the experience in perspective.
"I got the same medal as the Kenyan guy who came first and I crossed the finish line on my own," she said.
I asked her why she didn't just back out or quit. Lots of people did, considering more than 3,000 registered and Stiles finished in 2,576th place.
She talked about her dad, Bill Heighton, who at 52 bounced back from losing his leg to vascular problems last summer.
She mentioned her and Craig's dream of running the Walt Disney World Marathon next January -- yes, Stiles, who is obsessed with all things Disney, is already planning another marathon -- and then about one of her favourite quotes by running guru John "The Penguin" Bingham: "Through running I've come to understand that my life, like my marathon, is for me to get through any way I can."
Then, at the end of our conversation, Stiles worried only that she might sound like a whiner. Impossible, I told her.
Absolutely impossible.

Angela Stiles remains my favourite interview and one of the most positive people I have ever met, followed closely by the comic actor Will Ferrell and a farmer outside of Ottawa who, when I asked if that was his house engulfed in flames, looked over at it, paused nonchalantly, and said "it was".

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 ...