Sunday, November 28, 2010

On the Occasion of Visiting the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi

It's my third time there. Every time I'm struck by something new. Today, I:

-Was taken by how peaceful and large the landscaped inner grounds (surrounded by a high wall and inaccessible except through a triple-reinforced indoor security station) are, especially now that it's nice outside. Of course, it also means that anyone from the second floor or higher has an unobstructed view of anyone below, but I didn't think too much about that.

A trapezoidal monument to freedom.

-Almost saw my hearing aids confiscated. I had to explain several times that no, I wasn't deaf--no matter what Mrs. Blog might say--but that I could hear much better with them. Eventually they relented.

-Saw only two firearms, both carried by UAE military personnel, both outside in the parking lot. Nary a Marine in sight. All the internal security was through a private firm that was, I would estimate, about 100 times more professional and efficient than what you usually see in this country.

-Had an almost overwhelming urge to ask every American accent I met where they were from. It was like, "Hey, so you wound up in Abu Dhabi too, huh? What's your story?" Of course, the answer would be something like, "I work for the embassy, dumbass," so probably not the best way to phrase that question.

In the end, I was in and out in less than a half-hour, and the biggest hassle was the hearing aid issue. The place is impressively bulletproof and the staff is pleasant. I never thought I would say this, but HSBC, take note--the U.S. government is more efficient than you are.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rob Evans, 1973-2010

"Everyone grieves in their own way." It's a truism, but that doesn't make it false. Some people post on Facebook. Others cry at home or in the embrace of a loved one. Others find solace in numbers, music and conversation.

What I found, when my dear friend Rob Evans died here in the UAE, was that the act of writing his obituary brought me some peace. Talking to so many people who loved him and hearing their stories – and there were countless stories, all punctuated with laughter – maybe helped my subconscious focus on who he was, not what happened to him.

Mrs Blog and I were dancing with him at a Prince concert on Friday night less than an hour before he died. Before that we had enjoyed his company, his wit, his antics on two continents.

We spent Saturday crying and remembering. Below is the story of his life and the people he touched.

Rob and his son, Seren.

Gerry Doyle

Robert Evans had a knack for finding happiness and adventure without really trying, his friends and family said.

Never one to formulate a careful roadmap to his destination, he instead took joy in simply experiencing life as it happened. During a trek through Spain with his brothers and father this summer, he illustrated that with what he packed – and did not pack – for a 100-kilometre walk.

“I brought an enormous rucksack ... prepared for any eventuality,” said his brother David, 47. “He had a very small bag. I think he had a T-shirt. I don’t think he even had a towel or a toothbrush.”

While his brother struggled under the weight of his gear, Rob “was able to walk around at just an incredible rate. I asked him, ‘What if it rains?’ He said, ‘It’s not going to rain. It’s Spain!’

“And he was right.”

Rob, 37, an assistant photo editor for The National, died unexpectedly early Saturday morning during a concert on Yas Island.

Born in 1973 in Gibraltar, where his British father, Jeremy, was stationed in the Royal Air Force, he grew up in a half-dozen locales, from around the UK to Belgium and even briefly back to Gibraltar.

He went to boarding school from 1982 to 1991, visiting his family on holidays wherever they happened to live. When he finished A-levels, however, his mother, Jean, was gravely ill. She died a few months after he graduated.

“It made his teenage years quite difficult in a way,” his brother said. “He was trying to start life out as an adult, but he didn’t have mum there to help him.

“He wanted to try different things. He had difficulty finding something to settle down into.”

He lived with his father for the next year and a half, then went on to attend Middlesex University in London, where he later graduated with a BA diploma in American Studies and Art History.

“He’d got very kind of arty-crafty in his ideas and thoughts and pursuits at that stage,” his father said. “He was always so strongly attracted to America and American life ... I think it was a combination that appealed to him.”

It was a turnabout from his childhood dreams, in which a fascination with aircraft led him to receive a flying scholarship from the RAF, he added.

After graduation, he stayed in London and worked a series of jobs as he tried to settle on a career. At one point he was driving a taxi around the city and working for a company that sold butcher knives, his father said.

“We were always terrified because he would come around to see us, and he’d open up the back of [the car] this thing and we would see the most horrifying collection of blades,” his father said, leading them to worry what would happen if his taxi were hit from behind.

His love of music led him to gigs that included a five-year stint as assistant to the event director of the EXIT music festival in Serbia.

That is where he met Reetu Rupal, 32, his girlfriend of four years.

“Rob was a massive music fan, and was sort of in his element in those sort of things,” Ms Rupal said. “I was over there DJ-ing. My DJ partner couldn’t make it so I was there on my own. ... [Rob and I] hit it off, swapped numbers and stuff. And when we came back to England, he came to see me play.”

She said his love of music, adventure and American culture played a huge role in his life. He lived for a time in Memphis and San Francisco, went to services at Al Green’s church and took a Greyhound bus from America’s West Coast to the East.

“Rob loved being surrounded by his friends. He always had a story to tell and would always contribute sort of long stories about the times in his life,” she said.

“He told me how he got to New Orleans once,” she said. “He arrived with a little bag and a Lonely Planet guide. He went into a bar and ordered a scotch or something, then went off to the toilet to read his guide so no one could tell he was a tourist. Then he had some sort of mad moment and literally tore out the pages listing the youth hostels and threw the rest of it in the toilet.”

“That kind of summed up Rob. He was such an adventurer.”

The birth of his son, Seren, in 2002 changed his life, his father said.

“Seren gave him an emotional focus, outside his social life and his attempts to get settled into some kind of career,” his father said. “He’s been a wonderful father. Absolutely devoted to the little lad.”

Helen McLaughlin, a friend of Rob who worked with him at The National, said his curiosity about the world and appetite for knowledge bolstered his connection with his son. So, too, did his tremendous sense of fun.

She recounted one of his favourite stories: “He took Seren to [the London toy store] Hamleys. But he told Seren, ‘We’re going to go to this really, really big toy shop. The thing about it is, though, is that I know sort of where it is, but not really.’ They got off the Tube early and Rob took Seren down the opposite side of the road, deliberately missing the store.

“Finally they were across the street from it, but Rob was looking in the wrong direction,” apologising for not being able to find this wondrous store, Ms McLaughlin said. “Seren was there tugging at his trousers, pointing across the street, saying, “There! There! I’ve found it!”

In 2005, Rob began his first job in journalism, as a picture editor and head of assignments at the Press Association in London. He came to work at The National in 2008. Photo editing was something he loved, his family said, and in recent years he had “really started to realise his potential in a big way”, his father said.

“If you looked around and tried to find all the bits that made Rob, Rob, you couldn't find it in a dozen people,” said Mark Asquith, a co-worker and close friend of Rob. “Music, football, politics, recent British history – there wasn’t any topic about which Rob wasn’t able to talk intelligently.”

That wide range of experience carried over into his work, Mr Asquith said: “He was a guy I could always turn to when I was stuck for ideas. ... you could see [Rob’s personality] in his work.”

“Rob’s wit was surpassed only by his keen eye for images that brought our foreign pages, and more recently M magazine, to life,” said Hassan Fattah, editor of The National. “He was a friend and a colleague who always lived life to the fullest and embraced the best the world had to offer. He made life’s troubles and challenges bearable and surmountable. I will miss him immensely.”

His father recounted the end of their 100-kilometre hike through Spain to a traditional pilgrimage destination known as Cape Finisterre – a name derived from the fact that thousands of years ago, it was seen as the edge of the world. The lighthouse there is actually marked “The End of the World”, he said, and is about five kilometres outside town.

“It was a tough walk,” he said. “Rob arrived first, then I staggered in, then the other boys an hour after that.”

As they waited in a pub for Rob's’ brothers to arrive, “I said to him, ‘Rob, the other boys aren’t here yet, and I just don’t think we’re going to be able make it [to the lighthouse] in what’s left of the afternoon”, his father said.

“Rob said to me, ‘Well, it’s not the end of the world’.

“And I was able to trump that by saying, ‘Well, actually, Rob – it is.’ And we all laughed.”

Other family members include a brother, Paul; his stepmother, Kate; two stepbrothers, Tom and Will Kerry; and a stepsister, Emily Kerrigan.

Services in the UK are being planned.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Things that happen in Abu Dhabi

You stumble across one of Mrs Blog's favorite (or favourite, if you're British) bands playing a free concert on the beach. Yep, The Beat (or The English Beat, if you're American) landed on our shores as part of the massive F1 race festivities. We aren't exactly sure how many of the original members were actually onstage for the couple of songs we caught, but we did ID Ranking Roger.

Very-shaky-cam footage.

Between sets, the crowd got down to dance music. A bit more enthusiastically than they did to the band, actually, if we're being honest with ourselves. The kids were out, and they were waving their hands in the air in a manner that suggested they did not, in fact, care.

Laser beams make dancing fun!

There may yet be more concert footage coming. Lots of musical folks in town for the race, and we have a shiny new high-def handheld video camera thanks to some dear Friends of the Blog. I'll try to hold it more steady next time.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

You know what really sucks?

Not having a car in the UAE. Yes, we unloaded the Audi--she is now making daily trips between Abu Dhabi and Dubai as the primary commuting vehicle of a co-worker--which means we are on our own for transport around the city.

Now, taxis are cheap. You can get from one end of the island to the other, 20 kilometers or so, for about $8. The same ride in Chicago would cost $30, easily. But they are not always convenient. For instance, if you don't know exactly where you're going, including several nearby landmarks, you're out of luck unless the cab driver is experienced and speaks good English.

Or if you want to just go somewhere non-specific, i.e., "Let's go find a cup of coffee," you're forced to decide on a destination before you head out the door. It takes a lot of the fun and spontaneity out of random weekend drives. And of course road trips become a matter of either renting a car or, if you're going someplace like Dubai, just ponying up Dh250 ($68) for one-way taxi fare.

And that doesn't even count the inconvenience of ordinary errands if you don't live within walking distance of the places you're going. Fortunately, now that it's winter, foot travel is a little easier. So when Mrs Blog heads to the market (and by that I mean the nearest mall), she can hoof it over there through beautiful, scenic Tanker Mai and the greater Al Wahda neighborhood without breaking a sweat.

Getting the groceries back is another issue altogether, although at least the malls have regular taxi stands.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that:

1) Abu Dhabi is not a pedestrian-friendly city...
2) Taxis are cheap but not always convenient...
3) Re-adjusting to life here is always a bit of an exercise, but it's especially exhausting when you don't have wheels.

So shall we start a petition for the Municipality to start work on the Abu Dhabi Underground?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

False flag?*

As a lover of thriller novels, science fiction and apocalyptic storylines, this tidbit out of California caught my attention: what appeared to be a missile trail heading into space off the coast. Missiles aren't just launched willy nilly. Especially not missiles carrying large thermonuclear packages.

And most space launches are made from the East Coast, which allows the Earth's rotational velocity to aid the booster and makes sure debris lands harmlessly in the Atlantic.

So what is this?

The final countdown?

In the end, the generally accepted explanation was that it was a jet contrail seen from an odd angle, making it appear vertical instead of horizontal. I guess that works, physics-wise, but I still wonder why there appeared to be a glowing rocket motor at the tip of the smoke trail.

Here's an example of an actual contrail that looks like a missile launch...

Harmless, unless you're a high-flying bird.

... and here's what a real ICBM launch looks like... you can see that it does, in fact, move quite a bit faster than what was spotted in California.

The final countdown. (test-firing edition)

But if it is a missile, why are all the branches of the military, including U.S. Space Command, saying they know nothing about it? Could it be a vast conspiracy aimed at generating a hot new novel?

*is a great book title

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Paradise City

Oh, hello. I didn't see you sitting there.

It has been a while. The last few weeks--almost a month, really--have been spent in North America, the land of awesome weddings, awesome beaches and awesome food.

Awesome beach, with awesome dog.

Now Mrs. Blog and I have returned to the UAE, the land of... well... awesome weather. At least this time of year.

There's no gentle way to put this, but it is never an easy transition. Abu Dhabi really is the land of a million daily paper cuts in a lot of ways. For Mrs. Blog, especially, it is a firehose of icy water blasting away the comforts of Southern California, where she has stayed the last few months. Now instead of playing fetch with our dog in the morning, she is faced with playing a game I like to call "catch a taxi and try to explain where you want to go without using an address." It's not fun, but can be rewarding.

But we need to be fair to Abu Dhabi here. This is the best time of year to be in the UAE--the temperatures are perfect, the humidity is almost zero and those qualities draw all the fun out of hibernation. Last night we went to Arts Abu Dhabi at the Emirates Palace Hotel and wandered (along with thousands of others) among masterworks by artists like Jeff Koons. Our favorite bit, though, was an "art sensation" labyrinth they had set up on the beach... complete with cocktails!

Then there's the F1 race this month. And a concert by Prince. And all of those things (combined with the great weather... did I mention that?) make the transition back from the land of pork and beer just a little less traumatic.