Wednesday, November 19, 2014

4 Days in Jordan–Day One

Donnette and I set out from Abu Dhabi to cut a swath across Jordan.
Mark was too busy working to go to Petra. We had a holiday coming up, but for that he wanted to go to a non-Arab country, Cyprus. Without Mark along, I decided I needed to do a mid-week girls’ trip.
So I put out the word on “The real housewives of Shangri La” Facebook page: “Petra is on my bucket list. Who wants to go with me?” I was sure I would get some takers. The unanimous response was, “You have to go there!” But everyone had already been except Donnette and her husband Ray, and he said, “Well, I’d like to go too.” Awkward. I coaxed Donnette with, “You can go with me first, scout it out, and then go back and do more, with Ray.” But it was still delicate. Husbands here work really hard, while the wives have all the fun, or so it seems.

Finally it came down to the wire, time-wise. Donnette needed to be in town for the F1 event at Yas Marina Circuit, and then was leaving to go home to Alabama a couple days before Thanksgiving, and not coming back until January. By that time, I would already be gone back to the U.S. for good. It was now or never. I said, “If nobody else can go, then I’ll go by myself.” I would’ve, but Mark said, “You are not going alone. That’s where I draw the line.” Although a solo trip greatly appeals to my sense of adventure, I knew he was right. I was alone in Paris for a couple of days, but Jordan, with its conservative Arab culture and proximity to Syria, is a different story. Plus, (forgive me for saying this but it’s true) Jordanian men can be … challenging. So I talked to Donnette, and she played our card. “If I don’t go, then Anne can’t go. And she’s not going to get another chance. I have to go with her.”

So Ray, bless his heart, acquiesced. He could see, ever since the Halloween party, that Donnette and I have a certain girl-chemistry. We get along easily, have the same drinking habits, and have a lot of fun together. We were both born in Michigan, in the same year - 1957. And during the trip, we found out just how much more we have in common, almost to the point of being spooky. But more about that later.

Mark, bless HIS heart, booked us rooms at three Marriott hotels – Jordan Valley at the Dead Sea, Petra, and Amman.
DSC01278Although we at first thought it would be best to get a car and driver, and Donnette said Ray would be more comfortable with it that way. Then I realized that would be too expensive, and inconvenient. We’d have more flexibility if we had our own wheels. I had no worries about the driving. I drive in the UAE. How bad could Jordan be? There were mountains, but I drive in mountains at home, all the time. Donnette just said, “I’ll tell him later, after we get there.” In the end, he figured it out for himself.

We took the early morning Royal Jordanian flight from Abu Dhabi to the new Queen Alia International Airport just south of Amman, got our passports stamped and heard “Welcome” for the first of probably a hundred times over the next few days, and found car rental row. When I handed my reservation printout to the handsome young Jordanian with impeccably slicked-back hair (with a little flip at the very bottom) who was behind the counter, he looked at it, shook his head a little, and said, “But, this is Budget.” I started to look up, even though I knew the sign said Budget, and by the time I caught myself he was already smiling mischievously. Ah-hah, almost gotcha! WELCOME to Jordan!


Our first stop was Madaba, on the way to the Dead Sea, about halfway between the airport and our hotel. With the help of Donnette’s Garmin navigation system, “Carmen,” we were there in less than an hour, found the visitor center in the middle of town, parked, and went on the walking tour.

Madaba dates from the Middle Bronze Age, has a long and fascinating history, and is mentioned twice in the Bible (Numbers 21:30 and Joshua 13:9.) Byzantine Christian and Umayyad Islamic mosaics were discovered and preserved there in the late 19th century when a group of Christians came to resettle and rebuild the long-abandoned town.
Hippolytus Hall
Although our visit there was short, it was the perfect way to begin the trip. Starting at the visitor center, we wound our way upwards to visit the Madaba Mosaic School and Archaeological Museum which covers and exhibits mosaics of the Church of the Virgin and Hippolytus Hall, and ended at the Byzantine Greek Orthodox St. George Church which houses the Madaba Mosaic Map of the Middle East dating back to the 6th century CE. This amazing map contains the oldest surviving cartographic representation of Jerusalem, and includes features that are still visible today when viewed on an aerial photo or satellite image like Google Earth.
Madaba Mosaic Map
Donnette and I were both fascinated by the mosaics and, as usual, I’m learning more as I research after the trip and learn about the larger archaeological park, the school where Jordanian students from all walks of life learn the timeless methods of creating and preserving mosaics, and I realize the incredible richness of the history of this place, the Holy Land, and its people.
 The Mosaic School has both male and female students.
St. George Church, Madaba

St. George Church, which houses the Madaba Mosaic Map, is quite plain on the outside. But this Greek Orthodox church is all Byzantine splendor on the inside.

St. George Church, Madaba, Jordan
And then it really hit me, that Jesus lived and walked right here. The world’s three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all originated here.
(Disclaimer: I am no religious scholar. Any misconceptions or off-base comments are due to my limited knowledge and are not meant to mislead or disrespect. So. Please forgive.)
Mosaic of Jesus Christ, Madaba, Jordan

Donnette and I looked at the mosaic representation of Jesus in the church and agreed: he looked much like the Arabs we see every day, except Jesus’s hair and beard are longer, and lighter brown. Probably bleached by the sun, and there were no “saloons” to go have it “painted” darker back then.

When we emerged from St. George Church, it was 1 p.m. and we were famished. So we went directly across the street to a pizza place, of sorts. We ordered a couple of pies that came folded over, with a bit of filling, and undersized Diet Cokes. People may say that prices are high in the UAE, but we could have gotten the same meal at an Afghan hole-in-the-wall bakery in Abu Dhabi for 1/10 the price (minus the Cokes.) Then we wandered next door to a shop that sold Dead Sea bath salts and mud mask for facials, among other products. The owner magically appeared and, even more magically, it was the proprietor of the pizza place! Same guy!
He convinced us that we should buy products from his store, that anywhere else the prices would be much higher because he owned the factory and so we were buying factory direct. This, we think, was perhaps true because we actually never even saw any products similar to what we bought there. But really, who knows? And who even cares? Not us, we got some good stuff for gifts and girl parties..

Then we had to run the gauntlet back to the Visitor Center, with shops and street vendors hawking their wares: “Hello, you want to buy pashmina? Mosaic? Jewelry! Come, I give you good price! Hello? Where you from? Excuse me?Hello!” I did spring for a beautiful mosaic of the Tree of Life, which features prominently in ancient mosaics (and which Mark will find out about when he reads this.)

But I didn’t get photos of the great street life. The problem is, if you stop, even to take photos, you are committing yourself to something, perhaps just a discussion about why you don’t want to buy something, that’s hard to get out of. Taking photos isn’t exactly free.
DSC01273Finally we were on our way, over the crest of Mount Nebo – which, sadly, we didn’t realize the significance of at the time. This was where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land, which he never entered, and where it is said he is buried somewhere. We wound our way through a landscape dotted with olive orchards and goats. Donnette was impressed by the heights, the views, and the curving road, but to me, coming from the mountains of Nevada and California, it was all in a day’s drive.

Arriving at the Marriott, I mentioned that my husband, who booked the room, was a Priority Club Gold member. “Will he be arriving later?” Well … no. “We usually give upgrade if the member is present.” But, minutes later, we had our upgrade to a pool view room. And what a pool – actually, pools! You’ve heard of a Pub Crawl? Well, here you could do a Pool Crawl, all the way to the Dead Sea.
We went down to look at the sea, but decided to wait until morning for our mud bath and float in the salty brine. I was wondering if the water would be cold. But no! It was surprisingly warm. But the Mojitos were calling and the sun was setting. First , we had a couple at the outdoor Oasis Lounge, while watching the sun set. Then it was Happy Hour in the Acacia Bar, where we retired for more Mojitos and a salad for dinner … and then time for sleep, so we could wake up early in the morning for our Dead Sea mud treatment.

To be continued …

PS I neglected to add the photo album before posting, but here is a link:
Jordan - Madaba Mosaics

Monday, November 10, 2014

Abu Dhabi’s skyline: a conundrum

Today’s Abu Dhabi rose from the sand in less than 50 years.

What does a skyline say about a place? Sense of place is a big subject for geographers. I searched for “Abu Dhabi skyline,” and found inspiration for the historical perspective that I was looking for. In order to understand Abu Dhabi today, you have to look at yesterday. A very recent yesterday.


Abu Dhabi Corniche skyline.

The inspiration for writing this story about the Abu Dhabi skyline was a discussion on Unwind just after we sailed across the finish line in front of the Corniche and were cracking open a “Green Gatorade,” aka Heineken.


ADFF 2014 logo

Thinking of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival graphic featuring some of the city’s iconic buildings, including my favorite “coin building,”  I heard myself complaining, “What’s with the skyline? … makes no sense … they could have planned it to look so much better …” and so on. I actually questioned why they hadn’t designed the skyline more like the idealized ADFF version!


Abu Dhabi Sailing Week ADCA 005


Young Matteo, in his youthful wisdom and charming Italian accent, held up his hands to make a frame and said, “You have to look at it like this, one building at a time. That one is nice … yes, and that one is nice …"



I’d been viewing Abu Dhabi’s skyline as an incoherent, incohesive failure of planning and aesthetics. What I forgot was the landscape it replaces: sand, sea, and sabkha, or salt flats. There was no natural backdrop other than the flat horizon, no dramatic line to mimic or respect, like, say, Cape Town. No hills to build on like San Francisco. No vegetation, even. Abu Dhabi was a barren island, detached from the mainland by just a few meters of shallow water, surrounded by sand bars. Today’s skyline was, literally, dreamed up over the past 50 years. The main island is now almost completely developed, and the surrounding sand bars have been enhanced with millions of tons of rock and sand so that they, too, can become part of the glittering new city.


ADCA #1 2013-14 027



Today’s Abu Dhabi is still in its awkward adolescence, growing at breakneck speed, sprouting limbs all out of proportion, stumbling over its own feet. The skyline is piecemeal, perennially under construction. There is no continuity. It’s a series of unrelated snapshots.

It’s like that old camel joke: designed by committee. This committee was made up of developers and architects, each trying to make the biggest impression.









ADCA Yas Cruise 069


And that’s why the snapshots of skyline are often gorgeous, grandiose …





and … sometimes confounding.

Palace Marina 028


So when I sat down to write this story, I thought to myself: “You’re supposed to be a geographer. You’ve studied urban planning. What makes a great skyline?” I searched “great skylines” and came up with lists – and lists! and more lists! – of cities known for their skylines.

Abu Dhabi wasn’t on any of them. But Dubai was. Dubai is full of unbelievable architecture, but it has two buildings that rise above the rest – literally, and conceptually.

The Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world …

… and the Burj Al Arab.


There are other buildings with distinct profiles lining Dubai’s long coastline, and that’s one of Dubai’s distinct advantages: its one long, slender skyline. Unlike Abu Dhabi, which is a jigsaw puzzle of skylines.

Another advantage for Dubai? An historic port, still functioning. A cultural heart, still beating, its circulatory system, still intact.

Abu Dhabi developed into the modern city it is today within Mark’s and my lifetime. MHe was born in 1950, the year oil was discovered here. In 1962, the year I started kindergarten, the first oil was exported from Abu Dhabi. The local people were mostly unaware, still living in barasti houses made of palm fronds and using the beach as their toilet. They were drawing brackish well water into goat stomach containers for drinking and cooking. During the 1960’s, as I watched Flintstones cartoons on television, the people of Abu Dhabi were living in a construction zone, as much-needed buildings were hastily erected using salt-laden concrete which soon crumbled. Electricity was supplied by portable generators.


Abu Dhabi barasti

“The town of Abu Dhabi with its barasti houses and first main road. 1961.”                    Photo: From Rags to Riches-A story of Abu Dhabi – Mohammed Al Fahim


In 1971, the the year I started high school, seven Trucial States, as they were then known, joined to become a nation, the United Arab Emirates. More oil money meant more buildings, better buildings, taller buildings. 10-story buildings! In 1975, as I graduated from high school, the first international hotels opened in Abu Dhabi. I watched the Holiday Inn in Detroit fall into decay while, at the same time, the Emiratis signed agreements to build the first Holiday Inn in the UAE. By the end of the 1970’s, as the recession hit and I migrated from Detroit to San Francisco, the oil boom was going bust. Even in Abu Dhabi, commercial and residential properties in Abu Dhabi were going unoccupied. But that didn’t last; the 1980’s were on the horizon.

AD corniche 1984

“The gardens of Abu Dhabi Corniche in 1984 which had just been laid out and were still being planted.” (Gulf News)


I grew into an adult in the 1980’s and and 1990’s. Abu Dhabi was growing up, too. By 2000, the city had completed 6,000 projects and added 90,000 housing units. We both, Abu Dhabi and I, spent those two decades building, tearing down, and rebuilding.


AD corniche 1998

“Looking along Abu Dhabi Corniche in 1998 to the Bainuna Tower in the distance, with the blue Union National Bank and gold Arab Monetary Fund buildings in front of it. At this time, the whole length of the Corniche was being extended into the sea.” (Gulf News)


At the turn of the 21st century, Abu Dhabi was at a turning point, positioning itself as a global city, alongside its better-known neighbor, Dubai. Do you remember your frame of mind, at Y2K


he headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Adia, in 2007 is the latest landmark along the Corniche with its dramatic folding glass front towering over the rest of the city.

“The headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Adia, in 2007 is the latest landmark along the Corniche with its dramatic folding glass front towering over the rest of the city. “(Gulf News)


An ambitious 25-year plan, unveiled in 2005 as Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, describes development and redevelopment plans for the main island of Abu Dhabi and its several satellite islands, and the mainland, which are all connected by bridges.


Abu Dhabi Corniche, 2012. View from Etihad Towers.


Viewed from the perspective of my own lifetime, I appreciate the Abu Dhabi skyline for what it is. It’s the front row of a dynamic city built in a snapshot of time, compared to any other city. Abu Dhabi has gone from palm-frond beach huts to skyscrapers of more than 80 stories during my lifetime. And I am here, to experience and appreciate it.

Unlike Dubai, whose skyline can be viewed from a single long northern shoreline or from a southern highway vista, there is no one Abu Dhabi skyline.  It must be viewed from many vantages. I’ve had the great fortune to see and photograph the many facets of Abu Dhabi’s skyline – from the water, on boats and on my board, and on the road, from the windshield and my bicycle. Corniche, Reem Island, Saadiyat Island, Yas Island, Eastern Mangroves, Al Bandar, Between the Bridges, Emirates Palace Marina, and others that I have yet to discover.

Eastern Mangroves Skylounge (8)

Abu Dhabi skyline from Eastern Mangroves Hotel Sky Lounge.


How it will all come together, only God knows. But it’s an amazing place to take in the many facets of the skyline, and take photos.

Here are some of my favorites.


Historical photographs:

All other photos are © Anne Thomas

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Return to Abu Dhabi


We’re back in Abu Dhabi for ten weeks, but this time is different. Abu Dhabi is the same – mostly – but we’re not living in the apartment at Al Seef Compound any more. This time, we’re staying in Traders Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, part of the Shangri-La complex “between the bridges” on Maqtaa Creek, the waterway separating the island of Abu Dhabi from the mainland to the north. Traders is the less pricey (4 stars instead of 5) counterpart adjacent to the Shang.

Since we moved back home to Nevada, Mark has returned to work in Abu Dhabi a couple of times, for a few weeks in May, and again in August. He’s been staying at Traders. When we checked in, the Filipino hotel staff greeted us with big smiles: “Hello, Mr. Mark! You are back! You are now a Diamond Elite Golden Circle member! Please choose three check-in gifts.” A bottle of white wine, two diet cokes, and … I guess we’ll take the Cup-o-Noodles. Wait – why didn’t we pick the Arabic sweets!? Hey, we were just coming off of a 16-hour plane ride and 90-minute drive from Dubai. The diet Cokes and noodles actually sounded kind of appealing, and it was too soon for Arabic sweets after after the food on the plane.

2014-10-06 15.42.05

Speaking of the plane, I have a story. And it’s Mark’s suggestion that I write it. He wants the story told. I’m not sure why, perhaps a misplaced idea of vindication or something, although I’m not sure if this will put him in a good light or not. You be the judge.
But first, I’m generally not a complainer; I really don’t like it. Sometimes I think I don’t complain enough. I avoid reviewing hotels and restaurants for Trip Advisor or because I don’t like to criticize places. When something isn’t quite perfect I find, in my mind, a way to excuse it. I don’t want to be feel like a whiner. Or a nit-picker. But I don’t see this as a virtue because often, I don’t realize that something is bothering me until it’s too late. Then, I begin to resent. Why didn’t I speak up? Who’s to blame? Who knew, except for me? Why didn’t I just say what I was thinking, ask for what I wanted? Demand it, if necessary? Sometimes I do, sometimes not. It’s a bit uneven, I suppose.

So, Mark bought me an Economy Class ticket on the same San Francisco to Dubai flight that he was already booked on by his company’s travel agent except he was in Business Class. My ticket cost about $1500, paid for by us, and his was about $8,000 on the company.  Yes, that’s a difference of about $5,500. Of course, for that kind of money, I wasn’t about to whine about not getting business. And since I was traveling with him and he is a Gold Emirates Member, I get all the same preferred check in, pre-boarding, lounge access and seat choice privileges. Not too bad except for the lower class, smaller space and inferior seat. It’s pretty equivalent travel to Mark’s eye, and mine too. But still … (Cue the chorus: “First world problems!”)

Bulkhead seat in economy classOver the next few weeks, as we were anticipating the trip, I murmured things like, “I don’t mind. Those seats are pretty good.” … “They do have foot rests that come up, although they don’t fully recline.” … “Even in economy the food is good. And the booze is free.” … “I have my noise-canceling headphones.” .. “I’ll just try to sleep most of the way.”
Mark said things like, “We’ll get to the check-in counter when it opens, and get you a bulkhead seat.” And, “Remember, you can get plastered in the Business Class lounge and not even remember the flight! How about that!”

Then, a couple of days before our flight, I got an email from Emirates. They were offering me an upgrade to Business Class for $1000. It would be available until 24 hours before the flight.

I showed it to Mark, but he wasn’t impressed. “You’re already getting into the lounge, and we can get you a good seat. The upgrade is  only for one way.” I would still have a coach flight back. We didn’t need to spend the money. But I didn’t really agree. I mean, hadn’t I just the other day won a thousand dollar Royal Flush video poker jackpot? In fact, hadn’t we won several jackpots during the past six  months we’ve been home? But wait, that’s another story … and I don’t write about our gambling habits.

DSC00802I let it go. I was too busy to think about it because we were enjoying our last week before leaving for the UAE on vacation in Sonoma, California, reuniting with friends who had also lived in Abu Dhabi. Yes, coincidentally, we had planned this vacation way last winter, and it happened to back right up against our trip. We were spending the week with Terry and Pete and 4 other couples visiting wineries, drinking great wines, cooking great food, all in a spectacular setting in a private villa on a horse ranch and vineyard. I just couldn’t be bothered with thinking about the flight.

Couldn’t be bothered, that is, until Sunday, the last day, when all the others realized that Mark and I were going back to Abu Dhabi on Monday. Then, the conversation turned to which airport, which airline. Three of the other couples were also flying out of SFO – on Sunday Linda’s husband Fred was going back to Abu Dhabi, Linda was going home to Boston, and Samina and Trevor were flying to London. Terry and Pete were going back to Florida later in the week.

DSC00715I mentioned, apropos of the topic of conversation, that Mark had a business class ticket but mine was economy. Then suddenly, I felt this weird little awkwardness, and I realized: There are people in this room who NEVER fly coach. And then, another thought: If they did, it would be together. They would never put their wife in coach while they flew business. And then: If they even tried, there would probably be hell to pay. Finally: Am I doing something wrong here? I think I am doing something wrong.

But nobody actually said anything, and the moment quickly passed, as awkward pauses do. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, with hopes to reunite again, somewhere in the world, in a couple of years.

That evening, we met up with our sailing friends at Richmond Yacht Club in Point Richmond, California, all of whom are also pretty well traveled. After dinner, and several bottles of wine shared among a dozen or so friends, we were getting ready to say goodbye and the conversation turned to our flight. Before I could think to stop myself, I was telling everyone the story about the upgrade.
The crowd’s condemnation was swift: “Oh my God! You’re letting your wife fly in coach while you’re in business?” “Aren’t you giving up your seat to her? Won’t they let you?” “You’re letting him get away with this?” Everyone joined in with his or her two cents’ worth. It was unanimous. Mark deserved public shaming.

_39Then Judy grabbed me by the arm (anyone who knows Judy can certainly picture this) and said, “Annie, you have a credit card, don’t you? Why didn’t you just take the upgrade? Why’d you have to ask him? How does he have that power?!” And so I, too was being shamed. But it was too late to take the deal; our flight was leaving in less than 24 hours. Finally Mark said, defensively, almost challenging me, “Well, maybe you’ll still get an upgrade …” Oh yeah, right. He’s already told me he checked, and my ticket was not eligible for a mileage upgrade.

So now I finally realized that, yes, I was mad. Actually, I was hurt. Wasn’t I worth the $1000 upgrade? It was more fun to fly together. Why did he have to be so cheap sometimes? What was the point? This was our last trip over there – inshallah.

But there was nothing I could say that the others hadn’t already said better. I was mad at Mark, but I was just as mad at myself. Why didn’t I just take the upgrade? I didn’t take it because a thousand bucks used to be a ton of money to me. It’s still a ton of money to a lot of people. And I had wanted Mark to say, “Yeah, that’s great, let’s get the upgrade so you can be in business with me.” But now, he kept saying things like, “I guess I’m in trouble. I screwed up.” And all I could say was … nothing. I admit it. I was now playing it passive aggressive.

20141006_134521So there we were in the Emirates Lounge. We had checked in early and I had a bulkhead seat. Mark was being extra solicitous, getting me glasses of champagne, encouraging me to have a plate of seared ahi, chilled shrimp, Indian curry. Then, in the jetway, as I prepared to head to the back of the plane, he said something like, “I guess everybody thinks I’m a big turd.”

He felt guilty. Good. “Well,” I said. “You’ve been shamed.” I’ll be honest, by that time I could hardly look at him. “Bye,’ he said, “see you later, Honey.” Yeah. Right. Bye.

The bulkhead seats on the Boeing 777 have more leg room, yes. And that’s why bulkhead seats are always occupied by families with infants. They have little bassinettes that they hang on the bulkhead for the babies to sleep in. But the babies don’t always sleep, and when they aren’t sleeping they are crying. When they aren’t crying, they are screeching.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE babies! But. There was a baby in my row that was screeching, and it was the loudest, most painfully intense noise I have ever heard a baby, or for that matter, a Sawzall on metal, make. I felt sorry for the parents already. As the plane filled I broke out my noise-canceling headphones, cranked up the music on my iPad, closed my eyes, and tried to relax.

About ten minutes later, I sensed that someone was standing in front of me.  A flight attendant was bending toward me, speaking, and I pulled my headphones aside. “Mrs. Thomas?” Yes. “Your husband has upgraded you to Business Class. He said that he did not do this he is in a lot of trouble.” I admit that, as I gathered my belongings, I felt … not surprised.
She led me forward on the plane, to a seat at the very front of business – there were lots of empty seats! Then she moved a sheepish Mark to join me. He told me he’d used his miles for the upgrade. Was it a lot of miles? “Yes. Two tickets to Milan.” I didn’t know we were planning a trip to Milan.

I settled in, and the flight attendant brought the menu and wine list. Veuve Clicquot champagne, top shelf liquors, five-course dinner, hot and cold “light bites,” and full breakfast, with fruit, yogurt and four main course choices. I’ve a feeling we’re not in coach any more.


After dinner (seared beef filet for me) they brought a mattress for my reclining seat – it’s more like a quilted pad. Headphones on, and (at Mark’s suggestion) I watched “True Detective.” Sometime during the fourth episode, I reclined my seat completely and fell asleep.

One of the neat things about the Emirates Boeing 777 is the lighting. Simulated stars in the ceiling encourage sleep, and after a few hours, “dawn” breaks and the light goes from dark blue to purple to pink, and finally to full “daylight.” Then they serve breakfast. I never saw the “light bites,” I guess that happened while I was sleeping.

So over the course of the 16-hour flight I got a pretty good night’s sleep, and had dinner and breakfast on a reasonably normal schedule except that breakfast was about 4:00 a.m. West Coast time. Then we landed, and it was 7:00 p.m. and dark. Weird.

But it worked out the next morning because the breakfast buffet at Traders has dishes that seem, to me, more like dinner than breakfast: Indian curries with rice, Asian noodles, sir-fried beef, couscous … or, you can get eggs, bacon (beef bacon, that is) and all the other regular breakfast items.

But that’s another story, which is coming: what it’s like to live here, leave, and come back – this time, to hotel life between the bridges with some, if not all, of your friends still around.

Was it worth whatever miles it cost to upgrade me? Oh, yes. To me, it was huge. For some reason, I enjoyed that flight the most, and slept the best, of any so far.

Note: the photos of the seats, flight attendants and baby are copied from the Internet.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Leaving Abu Dhabi - Everything is Temporary

A month to the day after we left Abu Dhabi, Mark boarded an Airbus a380, on his way back. When will I return?

When expats arriving in Abu Dhabi first meet one another, they always ask, “How long have you been here?” And then, “Where do you live?” It’s an interesting topic because there, everything is stunningly new, shiny, and sky-high, with panoramic views across the city and the Arabian Gulf.

They may live on the 70th floor of a brand-new tower on Reem Island, or in a great location on the water like the Shangri-La, with a view of the Grand Mosque or the Ritz Carlton from the infinity pool.
Or maybe, in a neighborhood of spacious villas with lots of other expat families, and their kids and dogs.
Or like us, in an apartment compound with a mini-mall under construction a few feet away.

Halloween 003

One practical reason for these questions is that  you want to make friends with people who live nearby. The American Women’s Network coffees help people who live near one another find each other. It’s easier to socialize with people who live close, so you can walk home from the party. Or take a short taxi ride.

Next, everyone asks, “How long will you be here?” What makes this question so redundant and absurd is that nobody ever knows, and the asker, who knows this, asks anyway, and so it always ends: “Well, we think (some length of time,) but we’re not sure. Probably at least (shorter time.) It depends on (source of job uncertainty or level of frustration.)”

Yes, you never know. It’s the UAE. Ha-ha. Anything can happen. You meet people and, the next thing you know, they‘re gone.


So cliché, but we all found ourselves saying those words. I had that conversation dozens of times, if not a hundred. Leaving is a topic that most people are thinking about even as they arrive, and continue to think about on a daily basis. It colors the experience there. I knew from the beginning that our days in Abu Dhabi were numbered, and I wanted to get my feet under me as soon a possible, and understand this crazy place, because anything could happen. I wanted to experience everything, starting asap.

One of the first things I went to, looking to meet some people, was a chocolate event at the Fairmont Bab al Bahr. I got lost trying to find the hotel, even though it was only 5 minutes away from our apartment. I arrived a half hour late, but not too late to feel welcome and get my goodie bag with the apron and several types of chocolate. We learned about chocolate’s history and geography, and how to make a chocolate lava cake. Which I have not yet made, even though I used to love to make desserts. I was known for them, in fact.

Anyway. That day was important. There was a person there who I noticed because she had a big camera and was skulking around taking photos. She is in the striped top in the photo above. (I am next to the chef, because I am drawn to men who wield power. Or tall men in hats?) I realized that I had met her a few days before, and I had her phone number. Sensing a kindred spirit, I resolved to call her. And that’s how it works. You click, and from there you develop a clique of people who live near you and you can do things with. So that’s how Terry and I met. And I got my souvenir Fairmont apron.

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“When are you leaving?” That question became part of every conversation, because we were always leaving each other. Each time we got together, the talk migrated to a vacation – always to some enviable and tantalizing destination like Beijing or Bangkok, Singapore or the Seychelles, Tuscany or Turkey.

Or we talked about when we were going home to see family and when we were coming back. Home might be Australia, Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, Oregon or Washington. Then finally, inexorably, someone would ask someone, “So, when are you … leaving?” Because the answer to that question was always news. It was news if it was still unknown, it was news if it was decided, it was news if it had changed, and it was news, especially, if the answer was the same as last time.

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And it was big news when the tickets were bought and the packing had commenced. Which often seemed to happen overnight.

So, what was it like, living over there? Well, here are some pieces of the real story. Without going into specific details, let me just say that working in the UAE is rife with uncertainty. There are so many expats there, and you never know why, exactly, they are there. Is it because they were recruited to a golden opportunity, selected from a field of top candidates? That was what I originally envisioned. But then I heard a Brit utter the unflattering acronym, FILTH. What’s that? “Failed In London, try Hong Kong.” So … there is a certain percentage of people who are there because they didn’t succeed elsewhere? And then, it didn’t take long to realize that sometimes, in fact often, the golden opportunity you think you are seizing has its tarnished elements. I knew of many situations where people came thinking they could accomplish something, only to find out, once they arrived, how different things were than what they thought. Or, that their benefits weren’t what they thought, or their contract had somehow changed, or was not being honored. It’s not America. Things happen more slowly, and often not at all. Or not in the way, and on the timeline, that they had envisioned.

Like us, for example. Maybe I had delusions of grandeur, but the second-floor apartment that the company provided us wasn’t as nice as I had envisioned, mainly because there was no view and no outdoor space, which I craved from day one. And the furniture, picked out by someone (male) in the company, was uncomfortable. The kitchen was dark, with no dishwasher. The oven control broke the first time we tried to use it. And the few lamps and other items of décor were – well, there is no other way to say it – BUTT UGLY. Oh, and there were more casserole dishes than plates, and I don’t even make casseroles. And we were given dozens of wine glasses, more than even we could use, but no coffee cups. I could go on, but you get it.

But it’s hard to complain when your employment agreement includes housing and utilities, a car complete with insurance and gas card, medical insurance, and business class flights at the beginning and end of your employment. Yes, I saw lots of people whose housing was, in my opinion, nicer than our apartment. But, did I really want to live in a tower? Not really. In a resort hotel? It had its good and bad features. And many people didn’t have a company car. We had one, because Mark needed it to get on base, although he carpooled often. And I liked our lap pool, just steps away, where I could swim in peace during the day.

We arrived in fall 2011 and settled in, but right from the start, we were talking exit strategy. At first, Mark thought we should leave the UAE at the end of December, 2013. Just make a clean break at the end of the year when the Abu Dhabi Cruiser Association sailing season was on hiatus for the holidays. Then, he suggested late January, 2014, so we could take advantage of more paid holidays and avoid the rush of travelers that time of year. In the UAE, there are no government holidays between the end of January and June – which is a very long dry spell, holiday-wise. Then Mark decided – with finality – that he wanted to leave at the end of his contract on March 31st.

But then, a certain high-ranking Emirati Army official with whom Mark is a favorite, and whom I shall call the “Customer,” got wind of the fact that Mark was planning on leaving, and he simply said, “You cannot leave. I forbid it!”

Forbid it? A contract is a contract, right? And when it’s over, it’s over. Right? Well, that is true. Mark’s contract was with the American company, and they accepted his resignation. However, the Emirati Customer was of a different mind. He suggested to Mark that he could, with one phone call, prevent him from leaving the UAE. For weeks, nay months, Mark talked about this as if it could really happen, and I always laughed. We would be detained at the airport? I couldn’t quite believe it. But, as time went by, after every casual meeting with the Customer, Mark would come home from work and repeat the story, and I began to believe it was true. Really? Our bags packed, we’re ready to go, and we’re not leaving on a jet plane? It’s called wasta. Clout, Influence. The ability to make things happen. Or stop things from happening.

Although it was surely more bluster than threat, it did make Mark reconsider his plans. The truth is that he had very mixed feelings about leaving the Emiratis that he's been working so closely with, has built a relationship with, and who still need his unique experience and expertise on the project.

So, Mark made a deal. He extended his contract for another two months. The first month he was on leave, taking care of some medical needs and business at home. Now he’s back in the UAE, working on base for a week, then taking off on a business trip to Strasbourg, Paris, and some place in Austria, visiting suppliers with the Customer. Then our hope is to negotiate a contract extension through this year, where he will provide technical expertise but not be working in the UAE full time.

Airbus a380 015So when we got to the airport in Dubai, ready to board the Airbus a380 to fly home in business class, with the cocktail lounge waiting for us, we didn’t feel like we were leaving permanently, but we felt like we were almost sneaking out. Would we really be going back there? Technically, we are still residents of the UAE because our resident visas are still valid, as long as we return within 6 months. October 8th, for me. Then, my visa expires in December, because it’s only good for three years. After that, I’ll be happy with a 30-day tourist visa.


I’ll be honest. I was really, really ready to come home. I am loving puttering around the house, thinking about painting a wall here, a ceiling there. Buying and installing new kitchen appliances, starting with the new fridge/freezer and dishwasher. Working in the yard, planting shrubs and pulling weeds. Planning to finish the deck, redo the bathrooms.

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I’ve been watching the amazing weather roll in – it’s May, it was 80 degrees last week, and this week it snowed! But the California poppies and purple penstemon are still getting ready to bloom! I spend a lot of time staring out the windows at our amazing views of Job’s Peak, Carson Valley, and Kingsbury Grade.


I find myself watching the jackrabbits, cottontails, mule deer, bluejays, magpies, quail, doves, chipmunks, squirrels, and lizards, all grazing in the yard. I can buy wine at the grocery store if I want to. Eat all the cherries, avocados, and asparagus that I want. I’ve been planting and plucking lettuce, kale, herbs, and onions in my planter box/cage.

But I’m not really ready to never go back to the Middle East, either. I want to return, stay in one of the many fabulous hotels, and take my two grown kids to see the UAE. I want them to see the crazy, insane, magical, futuristic city that is Dubai, with the amazing Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (at least for now) and all the others with their spires, squiggles, twists and tiaras.


And take them to the Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which Mark, I am ashamed to disclose, has yet to visit.

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They would both love to go out into the desert, dune bashing in ATVs. Brian would love to jet-ski and go fishing.

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Nicole and I could paddle the mangroves together. We could rent boards or kayaks. I want them to see this place that is so, so different from any place we have ever been together, and yet has so much to offer us.


They would see the Arabs in their abayas and kanduras. They would meet our Emirati friends, and have a huge Arab meal while sitting on the floor. They would visit a camel farm. Maybe watch a camel race. They would see what it’s like to drive there.

Concord 006Why didn’t they come and visit us while we were living there? I sometimes wish they had but they didn’t, and for good reasons of which I must remind myself. They are still getting established, and can’t just take off and fly halfway around the world. When I went home to visit, I could see how involved they were with their own lives and how happy they were to see me – but it was hard to carve out the time, even on their turf.

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They didn’t have college breaks and weren’t between jobs, like some of my friends whose kids came and went with what seemed great frequency. And to be honest, my son Brian doesn’t much like flying. Will he even want to come all the way to the Middle East, given the opportunity? We’ll see.

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For my granddaughter, a trip to Disneyland with her best friend was a much better option.

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I think, in a way, I needed to discover my UAE before I could show it to them. I wanted to understand this strange, confounding place myself. If they came all the way over there, I wanted to know what to show them. Now, I think I do.

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We miss the wonderful friends we made. Most of the expats have, like us, moved on, and we hope to reunite with them in the USA. We are the Class of 2011-2014. But we were fortunate to have formed some strong bonds with Emiratis, as well. Not many expats have that opportunity. We will stay in touch with them, and I hope to see them again.

I don’t think we’ll ever completely leave. Arabia is now part of us, and we are part of Arabia.