Sunday, October 30, 2011

Here in the UAE

Arriving, Adjusting & Architecture

My Emirates Air
flight attendant

I hoped the flight attendants would be dressed in hats and scarves like the ones in the pictures on the Emirates Air website. They were, but only for the boarding and deplaning. I was greeted with a glass of champagne as I sat down and toasted the beginning of the adventure with Rehana, my next seat neighbor. She lives in Dubai, is a watercolour painter originally from England and was returning to her home in Dubai after visiting friends in the San Francisco art community, which she does a couple of times a year. After the chilled wine with heated mixed nuts, gravlax appetizer course, fish meal, and a couple of movies I slept pretty well in my fully reclined seat.

My entry into the UAE went smoother than Mark’s. I’m allowed to stay here for 60 days at a time until he gets his resident visa and I get our authenticated marriage certificate, which Nicole will send to me when it arrives in her mailbox. Then my husband will sponsor me and I will get a resident visa – and his company’s medical insurance. The authentification process goes like this: county, then state, then U.S. Dept. of State, then UAE. Each affixes a special stamped and signed letter.

After they stamped my passport I was ushered over by customs to have my baggage x-rayed, where they peered at one of my bags in the screen. What is that? Oil paints and brushes. Ok, good to go then. My one small error was ending up on the wrong end of the long glass hallway and almost going out the door to the buses for Abu Dhabi. No, no, I’m not taking a bus. I need a car. You’re business class? Yes! Oh, then go to the other end where the business class lounge is, they will get you a car. Unbelievably soon, I was riding through a sea of lights, looking for the iconic building like a sail, and there it was, the Burj Al Arab. The ride was about an hour and a half, and the driver phoned Mark for more specific directions as we approached Abu Dhabi. The drivers here are used to navigating by landmarks, not street names or addresses.

I like this view of the street below
It’s always a little surreal to finally arrive at a long-anticipated destination. But there was my very familiar Mark, and even the apartment was kind of familiar since I had seen it via skype. So here’s a portion of what I wrote the next morning after Mark left for work:

“I’m laying in bed enjoying the cup of tea that Mark made me before he left for work. Today, Wednesday, is the “long” day of the week when they work from 7:00 to 3:30. I’m trying to figure out where the sun is coming up and how and when the light is going to hit the windows. It’s my way of really taking things one step at a time, now that I can. This first day I will spend unpacking . . .”

Hah! One step at a time, what a joke! Things have been moving at warp speed and it feels like I have been here for a month instead of just four days. But if you have jet lag and don’t sleep at night, then it’s really been eight days, I guess.

So I did unpack that first day, and walked to the little “Swiss Market” around the corner to get milk and eggs. We’re in an area that’s outside of the city proper, almost like a suburban area. Everything everywhere is under construction. As I emerged from the compound a little pickup truck drove by and the driver honked. I told Tom about that later and he said I must’ve been mistaken because the men here don’t do that. In fact, if I were to point out a man and say that I’d been annoyed or harassed, he would be arrested and thrown in jail immediately.

 I never made it to our pool that day. I wisely took a nap and later Tom came and picked us up and we went for dinner at the Al Raha Beach Hotel where Debbie and Dana were staying. They were having drinks in a spectacular setting, the perimeter lights of the Disc reflected in the water of the Al Raha pool.

You see familiar sights in the malls

My big plan for Thursday was to go to the American Women’s Network (AWN) newcomer coffee. I thought Debbie might go, but she decided to stay at the El Raha and enjoy the pool, since it had been closed due to construction on a children’s play area. So the next morning at 9:00 am I found myself alone in a taxi headed to the Al Wahda Mall. The group would meet at Starbuck’s and walk to the villa where the meeting would be held. I have to say that I have been on my own for many adventures in my life, but for some reason as I hurtled toward Abu Dhabi city center that morning I felt like a needle, throwing myself into the haystack. I had imagined where I would be and what I would be doing but I realized that in reality, I was only guessing. I arrived early, before the stores opened, but the coffee and other food places like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, Baskin Robbins, etc. were already open or opening. So much for unfamiliar.  Since the escalator near me wasn’t working I headed over to the ones on the opposite end of the mall. But by the time I got there, those weren’t working, either! Then it dawned on me. They stop when nobody is using them, to save energy.

I went to the LuLu Hypermarket in the basement floor (lulu means “pearl” in Arabic; Abu Dhabi was a pearl and fishing settlement before oil) to buy a hairdryer. This place is huge, jammed with all the consumer goods that China offers. By the time I got near Starbucks again I could hear loud female chatter, and there was a group of a dozen or so women gathering. More and more kept coming and by the time we got to the villa, which was across the busy avenue and behind some stores, and the meeting started, there were about 40 in the group. They all seemed to know at least a few of the others but I chatted with whoever I was near and they were really friendly. The AWN board chair asked us to introduce ourselves, tell where we live in AD, how long we’ve been there, and a little about ourselves. I began to realize that most everyone had already been there for weeks, months, even a year. Whenever they heard something they could connect with, they would murmur to whoever was near them and so this happened as everyone introduced themselves. When it was my turn I said “I’m Anne Thomas and this is . . . my second day.” If there was a prize for newest, I would have won it, but I did get a round of applause. I mentioned my two grown kids and grandchild, that I had worked for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada (murmurs) been a teacher in Walnut Creek CA (murmurs) and was originally from the Detroit area (murmurs.) I said my husband and I love racing sailboats (no murmurs) and that I brought my oil paints (murmurs.) The women were from all over the world and have lived all over the world. It was so funny to hear someone all excited because she knows Walnut Creek. Someone else said “Nevada – that’s in California, right?” One thing I noticed is that very few women mentioned their husbands, and what they do. This surprised me because obviously we were all living in Abu Dhabi because of our husbands’ jobs. But a number of women went into detail describing their grown children, where they live and what they are doing. It was an illustration of how important a woman’s family is to her, particularly when they are separated by not just miles but countries and continents. The meeting went from ten to noon, and I was so glad I went, and so excited. AWN puts out a great guidebook to AD, and I bought two, one for me and one for Debbie and Lucy to use. The group has events, parties, neighborhood walks, you name it. And their mentor program comes highly recommended. Going to this meeting really gave me a jump start here, but I think there’s a down side to that. It’s made it even harder to sleep, because I keep thinking of all the things I want to do.

After the introductions there was Q & A and people started to talk in small groups, as people do, which made it hard to hear. One woman asked where she could go nearby to get a color copy of her passport, because she was going to get her UAE driver’s license immediately after the meeting. Someone in the group said, “Do you have a letter of permission from your husband?”
Things got kind of quiet. Someone else said “You don’t need one anymore. They changed it.” There was a discussion, and several more people said you don’t need it any more. But that can change. Again. Especially here. So when it comes time for me to get my UAE driver’s license (I can drive for a while, 6 months I think, without it) I will get a letter from Mark just in case. Do you think he will enjoy writing it?

The Disc. The specks just to the right of the center are people.

After the meeting I got into another taxi. Well, actually two. The first driver, when I told him to take me to the Al Raha (where I was meeting Debbie at that fabulous pool) kept asking me to tell him how to get there. I don’t know, I said, I’m new! It’s only my second day! Me too, he said! One week! The next driver seemed to know more, in fact he even knew not only other taxi drivers but a guy in a truck, who he kept honking and waving at, speeding up and slowing down to get his attention. Yikes. Your friend? Yes! Then: “Where you from?” “Nevada. USA.” “Yes, USA! Number one!!”
Debbie is a bartender back in St. Louis
 but I think she might be retired from now on.

Later, Debbie and I enjoyed a couple of Coronas and a swim in the Al Raha pool. I took photos of the Disc, noticing that there were some workers hanging from ropes. One thing about the area that’s going to make taking good photos a challenge is the ever present haze. A fine dust hangs in the air, coats everything and is especially visible on trees.

We like the Men's and Women's
at the Al Raha

We were told conditions
for workers have improved
Housewares souk

Racing dhows are beautifully maintained
Friday is the weekend so Mark drove us into Abu Dhabi to show me around the city and visit the souks, which are traditional market places that are remnants of old Abu Dhabi. We went to the produce souk, housewares souk, plant souk, and fish souk. The giant tiger shrimp looked too good to pass up, so we bought a kilo (20 shrimp) for $70d or about $20US. We saw the worker’s camp and the dhows which still carry cargo but they also have some that are raced.

Fish souk
We also went to a couple of malls looking for essentials for the apartment. Strange, it was really hard to find a trash can for the kitchen that didn’t cost the equivalent of $100US. It was getting pretty exhausting, and the stores were crowded. Emirates do a lot of shopping, and we saw many women and men in national dress, as well as people in all kinds of other clothing styles. I am not worried about what I should or should not be wearing. One odd thing is that unlike the US, you don’t see elderly people out and about. And there is a special checkout line designated for “Women and People with Special Needs.”
Tom is a professional schmoozer
Mark wanted to go to the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club on Saturday (DOSC has a Facebook page.) There was a pursuit race, and Mark thought maybe we could get on a boat. I had my worst night of sleep so far on Friday night, about two hours. So we left early in the morning because we were awake anyway, and we got to the club around 9 am. There was a gate with security guards. Mark asked if we could go visit the club and we were told no, today is too busy, there is a race. Come back during the week. He tried to explain to them that we were there because of the race, but they wouldn’t hear it. He couldn’t believe it! I, on the other hand, was not surprised. There is a security at the entrance to our compound; wouldn’t there be one at the yacht club? The attendant gave us an application to the club, and I read about the application process and how to make your application stronger, including

·         Volunteering to crew on Race Days (please call the sailing department in advance.)

Between you and me, I didn’t really want to go racing. Don’t get me wrong, I probably want to sail more than Mark does, but I wasn’t prepared. I was exhausted, and I don’t have my sailing gloves and shoes. They’re in the shipment that’s supposed to arrive -- well, actually I have no idea when it will arrive.
Mark loves to admire impossibly expensive watches
So we decided to go to The Dubai Mall. That’s the world’s largest mall, next to the world’s tallest building, with the aquarium, skating rink and indoor skiing. Mark has a thing about extremely expensive watches. So we went to that area of the mall, and they had everything. First we went to Panerai. Then Zenith, where we have been looking at the ladies’ moon phase watches for a few years now. The girl said to come back in January, when they have Festival @ The Dubai Mall and everything is a much better price. January just happens to be my birthday month. We’ll come back in January and get a hotel, Mark said. Seriously, that makes sense because this place is more like Disneyland or the Smithsonian than a mall. You can’t see it all in one day. We kept looking at watches, and Mark kept asking the price of watch after men’s watch, which made me nervous. I had to do something, fast, to get us out of there. So I picked out a watch and he bought it for me. Hey, it was the only thing I could do that wouldn’t make him think I was bored and irritate him. The watch was a really good deal, half price in fact, but I won’t say how much it was because certain people in my family might be reading this. Let me just say that it did come with a diamond certificate.
Burj Khalifa
On the way back to the car, we decided to walk outside through the parking lot. It turned out that we had parked right next to the valet service, and some of the cars that we walked past were impressive. But everything around us was impressive. When we emerged into the sunlight we were standing at the base of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on Earth. I haven’t till now mentioned the word “architecture” but let me say it now: the architecture in the UAE is wild and in Dubai it’s completely, utterly fantastic. I looked up that word, and all its definitions fit: appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque; fanciful or capricious; imaginary or groundless in not being based on reality; foolish or irrational; extravagantly fanciful; marvelous; incredibly great or extreme; exorbitant. As we drove out of Dubai I had this sense of the otherworldly, moving among all these half-finished outrageously skewed buildings. It occurred to me that I hadn’t felt this weird in decades. Since I decided to quit smoking, if you know what I mean.
That night we went to Tom and Lucy’s villa with Dana and Debbie, where Tom cooked dinner for us. The villa is right in the heart of town, and Mark had been telling me that he thinks Lucy won’t like that and she will be upset because it’s in an older part of the city and she is too far away from the rest of us. It’s true that the older parts of the city look old, and it’s not a quaint old but it’s a built in the 1960s or 1970s old. But their compound has grown trees! Debbie and I warmed up to the place right away. We immediately invited ourselves to go through the entire place. Three floors, four (or is it five?) bedrooms, five bathrooms. Roomy balconies (compared to our tiny ones) off of each room.  And a real little courtyard with dirt! But, I noticed, the kitchen is smack in the middle of the place, no windows. That’s normal, Tom said, because in UAE families the servants are traditionally the only ones in the kitchen. Speaking of servants, we met the maid. She lives in a little place below the house with access through the garage. Like a garage storage room. Except it’s her home. She works cleaning at several other places. When we came in and were introduced to her she gave us a big smile. Tom doesn’t pay her but instead gave her the room in exchange for weekly housecleaning. She knocked on his door one day, said that the people who provided her housing were leaving and she needed a place to live. So they worked out the trade. He said she cleans the place from top to bottom, and does a great job.
When Debbie and I finished our tour, I skyped Lucy and we told her we give the place “two thumbs up.”
By that time Tom’s friend James, who is a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, had arrived. Tom had told us that he bought tickets for us to a fancy dinner at the Palace that’s this Thursday, and we had been trying to figure out what’s the occasion. James solved the mystery. It’s the 236th birthday of the Marine Corps. James will be in full dress. There will be photos. That settled it. Debbie and I have to go shopping for gowns. Who knows when we will have another chance to go to such an event? As James said, “You do not want to be underdressed.” So hopefully tonight (Sunday) we will shop, with Mark and Dana helping. The stores are open from 10 am until 10 pm.
Last night, I slept better. I woke up at 1 am, but I felt like I had at least slept so that’s an improvement. But my thoughts were still awhirl. Maybe finally writing all this in the blog will take it off my mind and I can relax more from now on.
Thanks for reading my long post.

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