Sunday, May 31, 2009

I knew it!

From Sunday's The National:
Meteorologists expect the UAE’s unseasonably hot weather to continue next month.
Weather experts at the Dubai Meteorological Office said average temperatures were higher than usual in May and warned that heat and humidity would continue to rise in June.
“Temperatures for the month of May were not at an all-time high,” said Dr SK Gupta of the Dubai Meteorology Office. “But they were much higher than the average temperature for May. We had temperatures we would normally not see until June."

...snip...

Average May temperatures typically hover at around 39 degrees Celsius, but over the past few weeks the mercury has pushed into the mid-40s.

...snip...

June temperatures have been forecast to reach 48 degrees Celsius by the middle of June, significantly higher than the average of 39 degrees for the month.
Forty-eight degrees. For those of you keeping score at home, and by home I mean America, that's 118.4 beautiful degrees Fahrenheit. Al Ain, here I come!

Mad dogs and Doylishmen

It turns out that historically--and by that I mean before the invention of oil and air conditioning--the residents of Abu Dhabi, from the wealthiest sheikhs to the scruffiest pearl divers, all left during the summer. Al Ain is where it's at from June to September.

But guess where I'm gonna be? Hint: it's a place where Monday is forecast as the coolest day of the next seven, at a brisk 100 degrees.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

As promised,

One of the newsroom cats. I wish I could say it was curling cutely around my feet, but I think the real goal at this point was to score some handouts and bolt back out into the courtyard.

On the hunt for a spare bit of Thai food.

And speaking of food, this has just opened up on the bottom floor of the building I'm moving into:

Giant cupcake=giant victory.

Tomorrow is my day off, and maybe I have big plans and maybe I don't. Allegedly I get paid--dirhams are good. Perhaps I will take that money and buy some stuff, like a stove and a gym bag and sheets and a gym membership.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A visit from the newsroom cat

... is what you would be looking at a picture of if my cell phone service hadn't suddenly disappeared. Or at least the e-mail function.

So instead, let's talk censorship. The UAE just announced that it is banning the sale of Busta Ryhmes' new album. I'm not a huge fan of Busta, but I have never found his music particularly provocative. (and maybe that's why I'm not a huge fan) But on his track "Arab Money," he pushes the envelope a little bit. He quotes the Quran.

Not such a huge deal in absolute terms, maybe, but a lot of folks here found it offensive, apparently. And Busta, who is Muslim himself, apologized.

But clearly it struck a nerve. In fact, as I listened to the song just now on YouTube, one of the editors, who is an Arab, walked by, looked at the screen and said, "it's appalling, isn't it?" I dunno. Probably if you are Muslim. For me it just sounded like a mushy, overproduced hip-hop track.

The lyrics--again, not really inspired--aren't blatantly offensive. It's all about, surprise surprise, how much money there is in the Arab world, and how he is getting it, spending it and impressing women with it. (also "gambling with Arafat," whatever that means) And I am about as anti-censorship as you can get. I'd just as soon see the thing on the shelves, and people can buy it, not buy it or mock it as they please.

On the other hand, it's not that much different from the album censorship attempts in the U.S. back in the '80s, when 2 Live Crew got a lot of attention, and so on. Then the First Amendment kicked in. Of course, there is no First Amendment in the UAE. But the genius of this ban is that no one will really get upset because:

1) You can still buy and download the album online.
2) You are perfectly free to own the album--you just can't buy it in this country. Hello, eBay!

In the end, conservatives are mollified and Busta Rhymes aficionados aren't terribly inconvenienced. It's not the best scenario, but this is a land of compromise. In 20 years, maybe government types here will be incensed about more important things, like what kind of dog the sheikh is getting for his kids.

Watch your language

It's a funny thing. You kind of take it for granted that languages can simply be translated. And sometimes that's true. There's a word for "cat" in Arabic and a corresponding word in English. Same thing for bread, milk, bicycle and so on.

But names... names are difficult. there is no one-for-one translation of letters and syllables, so you kind of have to make do. And the result is that a painfully Anglo name like mine--melodious though it may be--gets butchered about a million different ways. And that's beside the amusing use of first names and courtesy titles, i.e. Your Favorite Blogger becomes "Mr. Matthew." (mostly because I have given up trying to explain to clerks, HR folks and the like that I use my middle name in everyday life.)

Anyway, my name has been spelled and misspelled and butchered like a Thanksgiving turkey. Mathu, Mathyo, Mathew are just a few of the options to choose from. So if I ever need an alias, several already have been thought up for me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How Gerry got his limp back

Yesterday, I laced up my shoes and played basketball. For two hours. In 95-degree heat at 8 p.m.

I think I acquitted myself well: hit a bunch of midrange shots, a couple of threes and posted up as much as I could. The assists piled up. The rebounds rained down.

And so did the sweat. I felt bouncy at the beginning of the evening, but 20 minutes in I was drenched in perspiration, had consumed a half-liter of water and was doing everything I could to avoid running around. After two games of three-on-three (in which my team was humiliated both times), I had to take a break.

Blame it on the heat, blame it on the humidity, blame it on my advanced age. But I was spent. I ended up playing in three more games and survived.

Honestly, it felt really good (mentally speaking) to be playing basketball at all. It's my favorite sport, and it's not exactly a national pastime around here. And I know I sounded like I was patting myself on the back an awful lot above, but I DID do pretty well, some missed layups and clanged jumpshots aside.

It made me a little sad, though, to realize that I'm not as young as I was. Yeah, yeah--that's how time works, I shouldn't be surprised, etc. But it's hard for me to stay in front of someone on defense and although I never had more than a 25-inch vertical, I'm just not explosive anymore. Shot blocking used to be easy. Now it's work.

But the biggest indicator that times had changed was my right knee. Cartilage damage in high school (also playing basketball) meant arthroscopic surgery a few years ago and a surgeon telling me that the game was basically off-limits to me. Day to day, it's not a problem. But after two hours of high-heat hoops... look out.

It hurt last night. But today I'm walking like the old man I evidently am. I guess that's the import tariff on the world's greatest game.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Still life

The Scots aren't going to know what hit them.

One thing the Scottish didn't invent: Mind-erasing margaritas.

This is a house-warming present for the folks who are so kindly sharing their fish tank, I mean spare bedroom, with me while I wait for my lease to begin. Oddly, I was unsuccessful in scoring some grenadine--the only non-alcoholic thing you usually find in a liquor store!--which is always good to have around when you're dealing with tequila. It turns a Mexican screwdriver into a tequila sunrise... much classier.

On sunglasses and moving

Two-thirds of my stuff is now moved into the new flat, and I confirmed that there is, in fact, a sweets shop on the ground floor. The Budget office is still there, though.

Now all I have is my backpack, messenger bag and a rolling suitcase. Two of the three are green. I have no idea what that symbolizes. But as predicted, it did kind of hit me, as I napped this afternoon, that this is for real. Not a vacation. Not a contract job. It's life.

It also means I will be shopping for a stove soon.

The other thing I realized, in a somewhat panicky moment, is that it is literally painfully bright for me without sunglasses. Will my eyes get accustomed to the desert light and sun reflecting off of the millions of tinted windows on every block? I'm a little frightened to say that if I had to choose between screwing my eyes mostly shut and not getting a tan on the bridge of my nose vs. the tan but clear eyesight... I'm leaning toward eyesight.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Abu Dhabi: A moving experience

Har har.

Anyway. First I had to strip down (my life) and pack up all the stuff I needed--sunscreen, neckties, sandals--with the notable exception of Mrs. Blog. Then I had to "live" in a hotel for a month. And now I'm moving again.

It's an odd feeling, because the lack of permanent accommodations has led directly to a slight lack of a permanent feeling. I suspect that will change as I move into my new flat, which may or may not have a cupcake shop opening on the ground floor... I can't think of any reason why Budget would have big pastry illustrations added to their windows.

Pre-cupcakes.

In the meantime I'm packing my bags again and getting ready to hit the road... although the jet lag will be a little less deadly this time. And the time in transit--spent crashing with the Scots--will surely be more fun.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Abu Dhabi crime stats

This is from a brief The National is running tomorrow:

-There were 18 violent deaths in Abu Dhabi last month, nearly all of which were traffic-related. To put that in context, as the population of the emirate is about 1 million, that's 240 traffic deaths per million people per year. The US is around 130 per million; Britain weighs in at 50 per million.

-41 injuries last month were caused by falls from high places. Which strikes me as astromonically high for a place this (relatively) small.

And my favorite, and I quote:
-"The police responded to 13 calls of childbirth."

In closing, stay out of the roads and you are unlikely to run into any problems, unless you're pregnant.

Just like ام used to make

Finally, nehari. Sweet, sweet nehari. Actually, it's not sweet--it's quite spicy. And it works amazingly well on a sweltering day.

A Pakistani reporter here at The National tipped me off to a few good places to try. Being in need of a stroll, I picked the one nearest to my hotel and started off. Of course, I wasn't so foolish as to simply try to follow the "directions" to the place: something along the lines of "on Electra, on the right as you head toward Le Meridien." The street is of course several kilometers long. So I checked with Google first, and armed with a better location, I hit the road.

The place was called Al Ibrahimi, and this was the first sign I saw.

A bakery? Looks delicious, but where is my stewed beef?

Pursuing the storefront around the corner, however, I found joy. So much joy, in fact, that it took two pictures to capture.


The restaurant so nice...

... they signed it twice.

Inside, no one really spoke English, but that was OK, because the menu was translated and I knew exactly what I wanted. Nehari, rice, raitha, sweet lassi. And that's what I got.

Pre-demolition nehari.

The only silverware I got was used for scooping rice and shredding beef. Fortunately I had learned in India to eat using just bread and my right hand--it paid off here. And then, my belly full of burning goodness, I tried to take the bus to work.

Proof that I was in the right place.

It went better than last time, but not by a huge margin. The No. 44 heads up Al Karamah Street, which looks closer to the office on a map than it really is. Especially on a 100-degree day. Next time I'll take the 32. Actually, next time I'll probably be living just a half-kilometer from the office... score one for reducing greenhouse emissions.

In which beer visits the UAE

Just kidding--beer was already in the UAE. I believe I already introduced you to the chicken.

But this week, Thursday and Friday, the One-To-One Hotel (yes, a very odd name) had a beer festival running all day, from noon to midnight. Allegedly there would be beers from all over the world. (false) Also allegedly, the each beer would be Dh20, about $7.50. (true)

So, being amid a crowd of hard-charging foreigners, I did the smart thing and joined them for a couple of drinks. Here is what I found: The usual beautiful beer garden setting, but overrun with expats and a somewhat underwhelming beer list.


Germany--check. Britain, er, Ireland--check. Misc. Euro--check. Uh, Japan--check. USA? Hello? Bueller?

But it was fun, as usual, because of the people. We mocked the awful DJ, a guy who had no moral qualms about singing falsetto over a Bee Gees remix, we chuckled at the somewhat befuddled service staff, we told tales of our homelands. In my case, that was saying, "In America, I could buy Old Style!" But not at Hop Fest.


Drink specials are to expats <--> Flypaper is to dead flies.

Anyway. Good times were had, after-bars were went to and no harm was done. And the marvel of it all, obviously, is that this supposedly "dry" country had a quite well-advertised and -attended beer festival.  Although I wish I would have won something in the raffle. 

Saturday, May 23, 2009

On the subject of sunburn

So, along with the swim trunks provided by the Mother of the Fiance of the Blog (who from now own will go by Mrs. Blog, by request), my going-away care package from Orange County included some truly high-powered sunblock.

But here's the thing--sorry, Helga--I haven't used any of it. And I haven't gotten sunburned! Granted, I haven't exactly been sunbathing... my only shirtless moments at the beach were around sunset, so no harm done there. But I HAVE been outside quite a bit, and I DO have a pasty Irish complexion, so what gives? Perhaps my sweat has some kind of prismatic anti-UV properties, in which case I need to bottle the stuff and get rich.

The bigger hazard at the moment seems to be getting a tan (or at least a "less pale") in the pattern of my clothing. Worse, because I wear sunglasses everywhere, I'm worried about the dreaded raccoon tan. (I searched for a good picture of it, but they were all so horrifying I just gave up)

Sadly, I think we know how this story ends. I get overconfident... I play beach volleyball for eight straight hours at the Corniche... I turn fire-engine red. The blog post will be epic; weep for me now.

On a more positive note, I have pictures of Hop Fest, the somewhat lackluster beer festival most notable for occurring in the Middle East, and of the dual victory today of both finding nehari and riding the bus to (almost) work. Coming soon.

Friday, May 22, 2009

More rocket porn

Although I wouldn't say it tops the time-lapse video of the Milky Way rising, this NASA-shot footage from the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters is pretty amazing. It's a start-to-finish documentation of the boosters' 400-second ride from Cape Canaveral up to the edge of space and back into the ocean.

Click here because my ridiculously bad hotel Internet connection takes hours to upload the video.
In the meantime, look at this pretty Space Shuttle picture.

Wheeeeeeee....

For a space dork like me, this stuff is catnip. The last camera view is my favorite, at least until it gets spattered with gunk from the booster's burnout.

Things you learn in the UAE

For one, you learn that there are beer festivals, albeit pretty lame ones. Somewhat blurry pictures to come soon.

For another, you learn that at beer festivals, people of different nationalities are quite willing to teach you foreign insults. A Scottish guy--we'll call him "Matt"--explained to me that three individually innocuous words, delivered with the right intonation and appropriately crude hand gesture, can start a rockin' bar fight.

That's information you can't pay for.

Also, apparently no one on the British side of the pond has heard of Mr. Rogers. Not sure what to do about that one.

In conclusion, there will be photos at some point. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Certain universal truths

It's a cool thing to look up at the night sky and know that anyone on the planet has the same view of the moon you do (or will, once the Earth rotates a few more degrees). For me, anyway, it's comforting to know that the Fiance of the Blog and I share the same place in the universe on a grand scale.

And the stars in general have always fascinated me. I remember the first time I really saw the Milky Way: I was taking a night-time shower in Paraguay, trying not to think too hard about the fact that anyone with a flashlight could get as good a view as they wanted, and I looked up. Bam. The entire galaxy was spread out above me. It helped that there were maybe a dozen electric lights in the surrounding 100 square miles.

Kind of like this:

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.



So Texans are good for something. If nothing else, it's a reminder that no matter what stars you see, your relationship to them is tiny and unchanging.

Lost no longer

I was never lost, per se, but I definitely have had some transportation issues lately. And the Abu Dhabi transportation authority's Web site is basically useless. But, as usual, journalism saves the day. My employer has a quite handy interactive map of the whole system.


Color- AND number-coded.

Oddly, none of these routes match the path taken by the bus I rode yesterday. It appears a good thing I bailed when I did. Directional confusion aside, this map is gold. The bus only costs Dh1 and as you can see, it's a fairly extensive system. Perhaps I will take down two dhabis with one stone and ride the bus to get Pakistani food this weekend.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

4 km, 1.5 hours

Someone do the math. That's a pretty low velocity, even for a slow-moving guy like myself. And that particular equation pertains to how long it took me to get from the central post office to my office this afternoon.

First of all, I had to get change for the taxi; the relative value of the dirham aside, handing a cabbie a Dh100 note is like handing a U.S. taxi driver a $100 bill. It don't fly... unless you're willing to pay Dh100 for a Dh5 ride.

Outside the mall where I got change was a taxi stand. A taxi came almost immediately; I waved for the woman waiting next to me to get in. Big mistake. I should have thrown some elbows, stepped on the hem of her abaya, something--because my cab-hailing success rate soon went from 100 percent to about 2 percent.

I spent the next hour at several different taxi stands; at each, there was a fairly steady stream of taxis, but they all wanted to go to Mussaffah, an industrial area where many of the laborers live. It's a popular taxi destination because they are always guaranteed a full ride and can get away with charging a flat Dh5 fare because they can turn off their meters when they leave the island.

Then one taxi did agree to give me a lift, and I hopped in the back seat, and an Emirati hopped in the front seat and launched into a heated conversation with the taxi driver. The driver kept pointing back at me and saying, quite obviously, "he was here first" and "I'll come back and get you." Heated escalated to shouting escalated to the driver repeatedly opening the passenger-side door and motioning for the man to get out.

But in the end, I threw my hands in the air and got out before any punches were thrown.

At that point, the bus arrived. I have no idea how the routes work--there are no maps available anyplace but the sides of the buses themselves--but I paid my 1 dirham and hopped onboard, because what the hell, it was headed in the right direction and I only had 15 minutes to get to work.

Just as sweaty as it looks.

Sadly, the bus deviated from its helpful course with an unexpected right turn, and I got off. But happily, another 10 minutes at a taxi stand yielded an air-conditioned ride, and I arrived at work... a half-hour late.

So, in closing, no, I do not want to go to Mussaffah, and no, I have no clue how the bus system here works. That must change.

Burger superweapon revealed

Last night I happened across a neat little restaurant. As typically happens, I wasn't looking for it. I was looking for a different place, but because addresses don't really mean much here, I couldn't find it. "Behind the BHS building," my buttocks.

Anyway, it all worked out, because this place, Eat 'n' Joy, specializes in something near and dear to my heart, if not my cholesterol count: the burger. There were 20 of them on the menu, ranging from the tandoori burger to the Arabic burger to the Mega-Zwicky.

Of course I ordered the Mega-Zwicky. It is two layers of deep-fried chicken, plus fresh veggies and melted cheese, and some kind of a secret barbecuey sauce. OK, it's probably not a secret, but the language barrier was high enough that I didn't feel like I could explain what I was asking without touching off an international incident.

Also, I ate it so fast that... well, I forgot to take a picture. But! The reason I picked that place out to begin with was the back wall, which is literally an edifice of fruit. Behold:


How to feel less guilty about eating a deep-fried treat.

I needed to stock up on vitamins, so I ordered the "Burj Emirata" based simply on its colors: orange-yellow and pink. It turned out to be mango and strawberry. And cold!


Half mango, half strawberry, all delicious.

It was all freshly squeezed/pureed. And this is actually one of the regional specialties that the guidebooks told me to look for. The Bedouins love their fruit juices. And so do I.

A few blocks away was a park I had been wanting to check out, the Capital Garden. It turned out to be kind of a miniature Central Park surrounded by walls of high-rises. There was a Dh1 entrance fee and not many people there... just a few people relaxing in the shade. I think some of them were actually groundskeepers.


The park was guarded by a giant teapot.

But it was a gorgeous day, and a little urban solitude sounded great. So I found some shade myself, opened up the laptop to read my cousin's rather engrossing manuscript, and listened to birds tweeting over the constant hum of traffic.


Yes, I admit it. I was wearing the forbidden flip-flops. But I was going to the beach next!

Then I headed to the Corniche, caught up in the beauty of the day and the purring onshore breeze. It was cool enough where there were people walking around, and the water was dotted with boats--powered and otherwise--darting around under the sun.

I walked a few miles to the beach, enjoyed an iced coffee and then set out to read until the sun went down. Except there was a hitch. The beach is divided into two parts. I initially thought it was "men side" and "everybody side." But in fact it's a little more nuanced than that. The "everybody side" is open to everyone... except men traveling solo. Ouch. So I was banished to the man beach, which wasn't so bad, I guess, except that there were a few too many banana hammocks wandering around.

One interesting feature of the beach is that there appears to be a permanent slip-n-slide soccer field set up. Some Emirati youth were engaged in a spirited game of falling down and laughing when I showed up.


Football without the footing.

And that was my day. No way I could have gotten through it without a belly full of strawmango goodness.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gillette pwns the Middle East

I say this only because I brought a Schick razor with me. And this is roughly what I have seen at every grocery story I've been into.

To the left of this frame, Gillette deodorants. To the right, Gillette shaving cream.

I have zero brand loyalty when it comes to toiletries--sorry, Old Spice--but it does strike me as vaguely annoying to buy a new razor simply because I can't easily find blade refills. And how did Gillette get such a stranglehold on the market, anyway? Aren't there laws against this stuff?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Achtung!

Encouraged--egged on?--by the Fiance of the Blog, I set out today to find a new type of food. So far I have mostly noshed on equal parts Mideastern and Asian cuisine, with a guilty hamburger thrown in.

My first stop actually was the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, a really cool place that is set up to, you guessed it, preserve Emirati culture. There is a poetry school, dancing, writing and of course a gift shop. The gift shop was the only place open to the public when I walked by. But my real reason for heading over there was one of the only surviving buildings from old Abu Dhabi, a 17th Century watchtower for the city's central well.


Not my picture.

It later became a fort and then a palace. At the moment, it is a construction site. Sigh. Being the charming guy that I am, I persuaded a guard to let me walk inside the fences and take some pictures, but getting a good snap with the digital camera would have been all but impossible. So you'll have to take my word for it (for now) that Qasr al Hosn was neat-o.

Anyway, many hours of wandering later, a cold beer sounded like a great idea. So I headed to the Brauhaus. I had thought it was just a drinking joint. But I was greeted by this sign:

I'll take "things you can't buy at Harvest Time" for $250, Alex.

I sat down, ordered a beer, tried not to listen too hard to a nearby conversation between an engineer and a flight attendant, and was pleasantly surprised by the arrival of this:


That's right. The roll had bacon on top.

It's a rule somewhere, I swear, that when you are offered German asparagus, you must accept said asparagus. Especially the white variety, which I have been told by EXTREMELY well-placed sources is delicious when eaten at a German restaurant in harvesting season. So I went with it.


Die Spargelspitzen und Thun mit Bitburger.

And so it was that I had a German meal in the Middle East. The tuna was just OK, but the asparagus was succulent and delicious. I don't think I need to comment on the quality of the beer. Prost!*

*Note: This blog post used up my German vocabulary.**

** Yes, I had to look up "asparagus" and "tuna."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A fine line between religion and "huh?"

I have made a bit of noise on this blog about the ridiculous housing situation here. In short, there is very little available and a seemingly infinite amount of demand. I'll save you the trouble of drawing a graph and say that the end result is simply high prices for small spaces.

But one of the most annoying aspects is that the entire year's rent is due in advance. So on top of high prices, you have to either have super-deep pockets or a company with generous benefits when it comes to housing.

I had thought this was just a quirk, like how Cincinnatians put chili on their spaghetti and Scots deep-fry everything. However, I was told last night it actually stems from Islamic lending practices. A little research shows no proscription against leasing per se, but charging interest or payment penalties are forbidden. So perhaps this just protects landlords, who in theory have no recourse for a tenant who doesn't pay on time... or ever.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A fistful of dirhams

Money drives everything here; the Arab world has a long history of horse-trading--literally--and the spirit is still alive today.

Fortunately for a fresh-off-the-boat Westerner like me, the only everyday item you really haggle over anymore is cab fare. And even then you can always play the trump card of insisting the cab driver turn on his meter.

But such an abundance of everyday commerce can cause problems for someone who hasn't dealt with the currency before. Case in point: I go to the falafel shack for dinner last night and the total cost is 12 dirhams. I get a 10 out of my wallet and what I thought was a five. But no. It was a 50.

Fortunately the falafel guy was gracious, didn't mock me too much, and gently asked me if I had a five instead of a 50.

The issue is that the five and the 50 are roughly the same color and only have numbers I can read on one side. The 10 and the 20 are similar, too, especially in the dark. The 200 is the only bill I can recognize without pulling it partway out of my wallet, and that's because it is the only yellow bill.

The intelligible side.

The "I accidentally gave the guy 10 times too much" side.

My European friends assure me that only an idiot or an American (but I repeat myself, ha ha) wouldn't be able to tell the difference among different-sized bills. But are a few millimeters really enough to steer me between red and pink, 5 and 50, "keep the change" and "what a rube"? I say no. Take that to the bank.

Friday, May 15, 2009

No direction home

I think I have mentioned this before, but one of the more frustrating aspects of life in Abu Dhabi is a near-complete absence of a sensible means of navigation. And by that I mean, no one uses addresses. You want to go somewhere, you tell the cab driver the nearest landmark. Or the neighborhood. Or simply the name of the hotel. And if they don't know how to get there, you issue in-transit directions.

But the funny thing is, there exists a somewhat logical addressing system. Every streetcorner has a sign that says what sector and zone the cross-street is in, and gives the street names. And if you look closely, there are actual numbers on the houses.

Meanwhile, the UAE has promised that the postal service will offer home delivery within a couple of years--at the moment, all mail has to be picked up at post office boxes. (or, if you're me, at your office mailbox.)

How will the letter carriers find individual houses? Why--GPS, of course.

The new GPS system will eliminate the confusion of trying to find a location by street name and building number, a major hurdle to a door-to-door delivery service.

At present, people trying to find a building often rely on landmarks and major roads.

While every building in Abu Dhabi city is numbered and sectored, the green street signs that give a sector, zone number and street number are not commonly used, and building numbers are not prominently displayed.

Because of these difficulties, delivering mail to residents’ doorsteps had been “a dream which we are working to make true”, said Mr al Suwaidi, a member of a committee that worked on the project.

While authorities in Ras al Khaimah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are in various stages of implementing street name and numbering projects, those would have no bearing on Emirates Post’s plans, Mr al Suwaidi said.

So, to recap, navigation will not get any easier, because who needs addresses when you have longitude/latitude coordinates? "Driver, please take me to N2516.222 E05523.140."

Caption this photo

So last night, this happened:

You can't see it, but this 6-foot chicken is wearing a UAE football scarf.

There were lots of things I expected to experience here, but giant stuffed chickens were not one of them.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Things you don't expect to see in Abu Dhabi

1) A cover band that plays Elvis.
2) A much worse cover band that plays System of a Down... right after "Heaven Isn't Too Far Away."

Band (2) was in a Filipino bar done up in a jungle motif, complete with vines hanging from the ceiling and a stuffed leopard. Abu Dhabi is an interesting place.

Meanwhile, I learned the origin's of the city's name. Evidently a thirsty Bedouin wandering in the desert followed a gazelle to an oasis. At the oasis was water, obviously, but also a guitar. And thus the city was named Abu Dhabi, which means "father gazelle." Also, "al gazal" means gazelle too. And this story was told to me by a Scottish dude who may or may not have been fabricating an additional element to the story in which the gazelle won the guitar from Stevie Wonder in a game of poker.

Anyway, how this all comes full circle is that it not only explains the name of the city... it explains how the guitar player in band (1) was able to so easily tear through some serious blues riffs.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Abu Dhabi sunset: a new drink?

So yesterday evening, I went to the beach. The light around sunset is amazing, there is water nearby, and the onshore breeze is a nice respite from the broiler-like temperatures farther inland. I brought with me my iPod, a notebook and my camera, an old-fashioned film-eater that nonetheless takes great pictures despite my best efforts.

Here is the shot I arrived there for:

A beautiful Tuesday sunset, but I didn't quite capture the light the way I wanted to. And the vertical shots weren't composed as well as I would have liked.

The flagpole there is incredibly tall--several hundred feet. The domed building next to it as the Abu Dhabi Theater (or Theatre, as we say around here), which, given its proximity to the Heritage Village, I think is basically just used for traditional productions.

Also nearby,

Are the birds fooled?

Now, in my other post I mentioned a "Tony Scott sunset," and this is what I was talking about. The sun turns a brilliant orange and seems to simply melt as it nears the horizon.

One positive of humidity: Brilliant sunsets.

However, a problem I ran into almost immediately after getting my camera out of the back is a major drawback of the aforementioned humidity, and one that I can't figure out how to get around. I obviously store my camera in my hotel room, which is fantastically well air-conditioned. And then outside it's like a million degrees out, and the result is insta-condensation. On the UV filter and at both ends of the lens. The result is akin to a generous smearing of vaseline on the glass:

Palace Hotel in back, fishing boat in front, haze all over.

Another hazard is the temptation to take pictures of everyday objects. Hey, that sign's funny. Look at how congested the intersection is. Those construction workers are holding hands. And so on.

Traffic is dangerous unless you are dressed like an emirati.

So in conclusion, we see that there is brilliant light here, but a host of issues that I have not yet overcome. As I said before, about a 25 percent success rate on photo taking. Anyone with expertise, feel free to weigh in.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Film processing here is the best... film processing... ever. I got prints, a CD (just for you, dear reader) and they threw in a 36-exposure roll of film. Awesome.

Buying groceries like an adult

Until today, my grocery purchases have basically been a means of exploring stores and providing snacks for my hotel room, so I don't have to pay Dh16 for a tiny can of Pringle's. I've been there. It's not pretty.

But today--propelled by the expensiveness of the hotel--I bought some food I actually need. Breakfast at the hotel costs Dh65, or about $17. Not terrible for a hotel restaurant. But ridiculous in light of the fact that you can walk outside, even go to the mall, and pay Dh25 (at the most!) at an everyday restaurant.

So I went to the co-op and scored a small jug of low-fat milk, 500 grams of Arabic granola and a six-pack of diet Sprite, because why not. Now my breakfasts for the next couple of weeks are squared away for about Dh15 total. For those of you keeping score at home, that's less than $5.


You can tell it's milk...


... because it says so.

I also developed the roll of film I took this week. Photos to be posted later, but not all of them... as per usual, about 25 percent of all the frames I take turn out roughly how I want them to. Need to work on that. Christine--send help.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

No, I am not paying you 100 dirhams for a 15-minute ride

Unfortunately, that's how my trip to the beach ended. We'll get back to that.

But here's how it began: I put on my brand-new swim trunks--thanks, Mother of the Fiance of the Blog--put track pants over them, and headed out to catch a cab. There was this spot I rode by yesterday evening on my way to dinner that seemed ideal for a photograph as the sun set. And happily, it also happened to be where the Corniche beach was.

A sweltering day turned into a mostly tolerable evening, with nice onshore breezes and a sun descending slowly into a Tony Scott haze near the horizon. Here is a rough approximation of the shot I was trying to get, taken with a cheap cell phone.


A setting sun, a gigantic flagpole and the Abu Dhabi Theater.

The real thing, and I took several at different angles, was taken with my Nikon N65 SLR, and I really, really hope they turn out because the light was magnificent. The island at that point is angled just right so you can watch the sun set (roughly) over the Persian Gulf.

The beach doesn't close until midnight, and as the sun touched the horizon--it actually just disappeared into the haze and diffused into an orange glow--more and more people came out. So I walked west-ish along the Corniche, heading toward the Palace Hotel and a giant portrait of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE. They're really big into royal portraits in this part of the world. And this is what it looked like:


When you found a country, you get a big portrait at a major intersection.

So after watching the sunset and hiking a couple of miles, I was drenched in sweat and ready to head home. Which brings us to the end, which is really the beginning.

I finally found a cab, and he didn't want to turn his meter on. I said Dh10, which is what I paid to get there from my hotel. He seemed insulted. I shrugged and started to walk away. He called back after me. I turned around and said 15. He shook his head: "Not fair price." I kept walking.

The walking, by the way, was somewhat of a bluff. I was not near my hotel. About a 15-minute cab ride, and a good portion of that was on a Lake Shore Drive-style road with a high speed limit. So when he finally accepted Dh20--about $5.75--I hopped in.

As we drove away, he asked me where I was from. I should have said Canada, but I answered honestly, and his response was, "You are from American but no give fair price?" And when I asked what a fair price was, he said Dh85. And that's why you don't take the taxis without meters after dark. Tourists staying at the Hilton can be persuaded to pay $25 for a $6 ride. Sweaty journalists, not so much.

Two out of three ain't bad

According to some guidebooks, the three major pastimes of emirati men are firing, siring and aspiring. The National just did a big story on the heritage of firearms here in the UAE, and Time Out Abu Dhabi just did a small feature on how more emiratis (and anyone with a few dirhams) are trying to preserve this heritage at newly formed shooting clubs, so I... well... I decided to do some firing.

The officers' club is huge, remote and has a fancy little mosque.

The first trick was finding a cab driver to take me to the Armed Forces Officers' Club, which, it turns out, is all but off the island... maybe a half-kilometer from the southernmost bridge. It is sprawling, with all kinds of relaxation facilities (tennis courts, soccer fields, restaurants, a hotel, etc.) and the reason I was there, the Caracal Shooting Club.

When men were rajulons and the desert was untamed.

Caracal, it turns out, is one of the UAE's newest endeavors, a manufacturer of small arms. After convincing the staff that I wouldn't accidentally shoot one of my size 15s--the first time I had ever used my Illinois FOID card--they took me into the range area and slapped some protective ear and eyegear on me. First up was the Caracal 9mm. Squeeze the trigger slowly, I was told. Three boxes of ammunition later, I had also tried a Sig Sauer and Taurus 9mm pistols. And because I really WAS there for the heritage aspect of it, I shot a rifle, too.


My worst grouping with a .22 rifle. Stop laughing.

The Taurus was my last gun of the day, and easily my worst 50 shots. But right about the time I started that final box of ammo, a bunch of emiratis showed up and started to shred some targets themselves.


Dishdashas off, ear protectors on.

And finally, as I shot the Taurus, the range safety officer kindly took a few pictures of me. Here I am, practicing for a life feeding my family and fending off bandits in the desert:


Steady.... steaaady....

The cab driver, thanks to the 30 or so extra dirhams I tipped him, came back and picked me up right after I was done. And then it was back to real life.

Overall, a pricy (by UAE standards) morning's activity. I can't say that I feel a whole lot closer to the desert culture, but at least I know that if I'm ever stuck out in the Western Region with nothing but a .22 rifle and a box of ammunition, I can hit a smallish rock from 25 meters away. Perhaps the noise will scare away predators.

Well, shoot

Rifles are a huge part of emirati heritage. Less than 50 years ago, towns were tiny, the deserts were vast and you needed something reliable and accurate to hunt and protect yourself. That's not even remotely true anymore, but the long gun (like falconry) is a cultural icon among the natives that remains celebrated.

I might try to celebrate it myself. More later.

Still more elephants

Real estate. As far as industries go, this one has been hit hard by the global recession. Unless you have a suitcase full of cash stashed under the bed, buying property means having access to credit--and being able to pay off a loan. With both of those factors  kind of tenuous these days, real estate sales have, in broad terms, cratered.

No place is this more evident than Dubai.

Full disclosure: I haven't been there yet. But a major and ongoing story here is the comparison between how Abu Dhabi and Dubai managed their growth. Dubai adopted an "anything goes, inshallah" mentality, and the result is that a tourist wonderland sprung up basically overnight. Visitors came, and so did their cash. It worked beautifully for a place with almost no oil production.

Abu Dhabi, which has what scientists call "a crapload" of oil, has expanded plenty itself. Walking around town, there is no shortage of construction sites, T-cranes and scaffolding. But unlike Dubai, these projects are (for the most part) not elaborate attractions. They are apartment buildings and hotels. Admittedly higher-end, but not anything that would look out of place in a New York or Chicago.

This slight difference in approach--the practical vs. the wondrous--seems to have paid off for Abu Dhabi. Access to capital is easy, construction is going on around the clock and in fact Abu Dhabi essentially issued a bailout package to the struggling Dubai.  And the housing shortage, although a major pain in the ass for (let's say) an American guy who happens into a journalism job in Abu Dhabi, is fueling the development here... it's not just building skyscrapers for the sake of building skyscrapers.


Regulators are gearing up to review all outstanding developments under a new law that gives them authority to cancel projects that do not start construction within six months of being approved by the Dubai Government. They are already considering cancelling 27 projects and are ready to halt additional developments that show no sign of being built and force developers to repay any outstanding amounts.

Marwan bin Ghalita, the chief executive of the Real Estate Regulatory Agency (RERA), said the new regulation would bring transparency to the market and encourage developers to follow through with their commitments.

“Many of these projects are from developers that are coming to us and saying ‘we don’t want to be in trouble’,” Mr bin Ghalita said. “It’s better to cancel them, rather than leave them dangling. It will give the market correct data.”


Dubai is hurting. Abu Dhabi--so far--is not. We'll see if the emirate's fiscal conservatism, not to mention it's gigantic oil reserves, continue to pay off.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Nope, still clueless

Remember how I knew the best way home yesterday?

Today, not so much. I had to drop something off at work, and after exploring the area a little bit, I hailed a cab back to the hotel. As we entered downtown traffic, he asked me whether I wanted to "go behind" or "go straight." Not knowing what he was talking about, I said "Turn left at Al Salaam."

The thing is, he knew what he was talking about. Twenty minutes later, we were still stuck in a massive traffic jam, waiting to turn left on Al Salaam. He finally couldn't hold back any more and remarked, "I say go around, you say go to Al Salaam. Too much wait!" Yeah. Sorry about that, man. I hope the 4-dirham tip made up for it.

The OTHER elephant in the room

I speak, of course, of politics.

After two weeks I'm not sure it would be fair of me to make any kind of broad assertions about the political leanings of an entire country. I will say, though, that although no one at street level seems to pay a ton of attention to local politics--it is a monarchy-type system, after all--there is a lot of discussion about the region and the world.

The assumption in the States is that there is a lot of animus toward the West in general and the United States in particular. That's not totally unfounded for the Middle East; U.S. actions have had a tremendous impact here, usually in terms of bullets and political strife.

But as with politics in any country, even the United States, the worse off you are, the more you tend to distrust and dislike the people in power. The UAE? Not bad off. Fantastically wealthy, in fact. So the U.S. ain't so bad when you're rolling in a Maserati. There was an interesting story on this topic in today's The National:

In the Emirates, while 34 per cent of those questioned had a favourable opinion of the superpower, the 40 per cent unfavourable was the second lowest in the survey; only Kuwait, with 34 per cent, was lower. 

The Emirates and the US have close political and economic ties. The UAE is America’s biggest single export market in the region. It is the only Arab country to have troops operating alongside the Americans in Afghanistan, and more than 750 US companies have operations here.

The Kuwatis, of course, love Americans because we saved their (imitation) bacon 20 years ago.

Another perhaps more interesting point in the survey, conducted by Ipsos-McClatchy, was that people in this part of the world think more highly of Barack Obama than they do the United States as a whole. Great, more high expectations for a guy who inherited one of the rawest raw deals in the history of raw deals.

Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE found a region generally more optimistic about Mr Obama, who became US president in January. The UAE is among the most optimistic: 52 per cent of those polled here approved of him, while 19 per cent said they were “neutral” on him. They were topped by Jordan, with a 58 per cent favourable opinion of Mr Obama, and Saudi Arabia, with 53 per cent.

But more telling, Mr Obama had a far lower negative approval rating in the UAE – only 14 per cent of those polled here held an unfavourable opinion of him, compared to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where 24 and 29 per cent, respectively, were unfavourable.


Note all the "ou" spellings in there. Anyway, the conclusion is that there is very little anger toward the U.S. here, at least that I have witnessed, and that seems to be backed up by this poll. One woman, a Tunisian who has lived here for nearly 20 years, told me that Americans were the nicest of all expats. Of course, she was trying to get me to rent a flat at the time, so take that with a few grains of salt.

Lost in translation

OK, first things first. I have been informed by reliable sources that I'm not smiling enough and I look tired. To which I reply:

Tired, yes, but smiling! And wearing a great tie!

Second, tonight's trip home from work led to an interesting scenario where I knew my way around town better than the cabdriver. Of course, the poor kid spotted me two weeks in Abu Dhabi... it was his first day on the job. But it was an entertaining journey back to the Kingsgate Hotel. Our conversation went something like this:

ME
Hello! Kingsgate Hotel, please.

16-YEAR-OLD-DRIVER
Sorry, sir, I do not not know that hotel. It is the first day on job for me.

ME
OK, do you know where the Tourist Club Area is?

16YOD
Tourist clubs?

ME
It's a neighborhood.

16YOD
...

ME
Can you drive to 9th Street and Al Salaam?

16YOD
Yes, sir.

ME
OK. Drive there, and I will tell you how to get to the hotel.

A block later he starts to randomly turn left when he should turn right But it's too late to turn anywhere.

ME
No, no... just go straight. And then at the next light, turn right.

This part goes smoothly. After the turn, I say,

ME
Now when you get to Al Salaam, turn left, please.

16YOD
OK, sir.

We get to Al Salaam. A half-block away he puts his right turn signal on and begins to cut across three lanes of traffic to turn right.

ME
No, left. Signal left, please. Left, please. No, left!

16YOD (25 feet from intersection)
Left?

We make the turn. Al Salaam ends in a giant pit of construction a few blocks away--the city is burying the road in a tunnel, because why not?--and we are forced to turn right, which is fine. That's exactly what we want to do. And then we need to take the next right. As we approach the intersection,

ME (pointing)
Turn right here, please.

16YOD (continues to drive straight)
Yes, sir.

ME
Uh... just stop, please. I'll get out here.

And so it was that I walked the rest of the way to the hotel after directing a cab driver around a town whose street names are difficult to pronounce, let alone memorize.

Time for the weekend.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

No salary, great benefits, lots of nap time

I mentioned before that this newsroom has several unusual features. Guys who bring you coffee and a ceiling that rains, for instance.

And then there are the cats. They live in the courtyard directly behind my desk--a grassy area with a shaded lounge where the paper's many smokers go to inhale North Carolina tar. There is a bag of food and treats, and always a big bowl of water for them to sip on.

As cats tend to do, they mostly just lounge around and meow at things. Sometimes they wander into the newsroom for a nap or a bout of sustained yowling, usually about the time someone orders in something that smells delicious.

I have yet to get a good picture of them wandering among The National's work stations, but here they are in their most common pose:


Giving me the cold shoulder and keeping an eye on the water dish.


Snoozing away the afternoon in a way that would make a hungover journalist proud.

I don't think they have names or anything, but they are a nice addition to the experience. At least you can count on them to bathe regularly, which is more than you can say for most journalists.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A true cultural signpost

I just saw "Air Force One"--you know, the movie where Harrison Ford is the president and kicks a bunch of hijackers off his personal airplane--advertised as a love story. How many viewers are going to be shocked that the number of firearms outweighs the number of hugs?

Apparently it does rain in the desert

So, funny story. A revise desk editor is working on his last story, when all of a sudden... a mist of water starts to spatter onto his head. The mist turns into a dribble of droplets. And then it begins to rain. From the ceiling.

Yes, in my second week of work, there has already been a plumbing catastrophe.

The second floor of the building is being remodeled, and--as far as we can figure out--someone left an unsecured 3-inch-diameter hose connected to running water. It collected on the floor of the second floor until someone noticed... that someone being me, because it was dripping on my head.

A couple of brave souls went up into the construction zone, which is not lighted, and wrestled the hose over to an open window. But the damage had already been done: Enough water had collected between the two floors that there was no stopping the rain.

At the height of the storm, it looked a little something like this (and in hindsight I wish I hadn't turned the camera sideways to get the full length of the waterfalls):


video

Note how all the computer equipment is cleared off the desks under the water. I have no idea how all that will be set up in time to put out the paper tomorrow. And, speaking of the paper, it wasn't all the way to bed yet. Some people couldn't leave their computers... which means when workers eventually showed up with some plastic sheeting, this happened:

Yes. That is a design editor trapped under a tarp.

And so that's why I finished work two hours late in a wet shirt. Instead of going out and people watching, I think I will relax and watch some soccer, perhaps with a Manhattan. Here's to a drier Saturday.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Interesting place; mediocre photos

And now, a brief pictorial representation of my journey and exploration of Abu Dhabi with a point-and-shoot digital camera that doesn't work very well at night. (I need a snappier title, don't I?)

The suns sets... someplace. Over the Atlantic, I think. This is my first attempt at making the ISO work for me.


On a French-built airplane with a German-speaking crew, and the map is in Arabic. Where am I going?


My first look at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

My second glimpse of the airport: a piano bar. (!?)

The very hotel room from whence I put together most of these blog posts. That desk, specifically. Gigantic luggage in left foreground.

Me, my street view and 18 hours of jet lag.

This is the Tourist Club Area, where my hotel is situated. There aren't many tourist clubs anymore... just hotels and high-rises. And lots of parked cars.

The Abu Dhabi Mall. It's hard to express how gigantic this thing is. Shopping, as I have said before, is a big-time pastime here, especially in the summer where everyone wants to be indoors anyway.


The Corniche, a huge lakeside park not unlike Chicago's Lake Shore Drive parks. The frame is empty because, as usual, I am the only idiot wandering around in the afternoon heat.

My first meal outside the hotel! It was at a Lebanese place, a chain called The Automatic. On the right is a (delicious) falafel sandwich, and on the left is a (delicious) plate of hummous. They serve it with a plate of pickled vegetables and more bread than you could eat in three sittings.

1) I wish I could figure out how to rotate photos. 2) When you go to a restaurant and order a "cocktail," you get something like this. It's layered fruit juices, quite tasty and healthy, but missing a key element.

The high-rises under construction on Al Reem Island in downtown Abu Dhabi. These buildings alone should ease the massive housing crunch here and allow blue-collar schlubs like myself access to fancypants housing.

The city is filled with "streetcorner" mosques. Every neighborhood has one. And you get used to hearing the calls to prayer several times a day.

The Emirates Media building. I had to wait a couple of minutes to get this shot (I'm standing on the median of a busy street) because the traffic was so thick.

The entrance to the Abu Dhabi Media Company. I think, but can't prove, that the seven small flags represent the seven emirates, and the giant flag represents the United Arab Emirates.


The newsroom. Basically like every newsroom ever, with pillars, lots of computers and strategically located televisions.

More (and less lame!) pictures to come.