Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gabons and Tigers and Cheetahs, oh my!

One thing many Emirates have here is money, and sometimes it seems like they just don't have enough to do with it. Even with all the luxury retailers, expensive restaurants and fancy cars, some people just need to find something a little more exotic ... like wild animals. The newspaper has been full of stories lately about exotic animal issues in an effort to educate the public that buying, selling and owning exotic animals is illegal, not to mention dangerous and abusive to the animals.

The first story was about a man captured at the airport as he was trying to smuggle in a baby Gabon monkey and 1 or 2 baby pumas ... in cages in his luggage! First, it sounds like animal cruelty as I think about how I agonized about bringing Rogue over in a nice big cage with a stop over in Amsterdam, I can't even imagine what these poor animals dealt with locked in a suitcase of some kind. Then it just seems stupid. Doesn't all baggage go through the x-rays these days? And what if the animals woke up, wouldn't someone hear the meowing suitcase? Well, obviously the guy had a plan for this, but it didn't work out this time around. The animals by the way were taken to a shelter and I think might be headed to one of the zoos where they will have good homes.

After that story, there was an expose about the Sharjah animal market where the reporters posing as normal shoppers were approached within 10 minutes of arrival asking if they wanted to buy a tiger or something (I might be getting my species mixed up, but you get the idea). This shop owner then posed for pictures showing him feeding rare parrots. Again, stupid! I keep looking for the follow up article where the police bust the exotic animal ring in Sharjah, but so far, that hasn't happened (or at least hasn't been reported by the paper.)

Today's story is about an 8-month old cheetah that was found roaming the streets in a neighborhood in Abu Dhabi. He had a broken paw and was wearing a broken chain so they think someone was keeping him on the roof of a villa and he escaped and jumped. He's now with the Wildlife Association and will get medical care and a new home somewhere. Really people?! I'm as taken in by the big cats as the next girl (okay probably a lot more so actually) but I'm smart enough to know that wild cats belong in the wild, not on the roof of a villa in Abu Dhabi.

And can you imagine the cat hair?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

AD Community Theatre

I'm guessing there were three different reactions to that title:
1) Oh that's nice, community theatre is always good entertainment
2) Oh no! Community theatre is only one better than a stick in your eye
3) Ugh, I hope Renee didn't join another community theatre
(and if you had another reaction, please leave a comment) :)

One thing Abu Dhabi doesn't seem to have much of is theatre. Operas - check, Symphony Orchestras - check, Ballet - check, Art Exhibits - check, but just not much in the way of theatre. So, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the Abu Dhabi Choral Group was putting on a production this weekend. Here's the problem, though, the show is called "Urinetown, The Musical". Seriously? I'm being careful to keep my shoulders covered, not make any rude hand gestures while driving, being polite when confronted with stupid regulations and this group is going to perform Urinetown?!

But, as I mentioned in my last post, finding things to do can be a challenge. So after about a week of hemming and hawing we decided to go and risk it despite the bad title, the fact that it's community theatre in a town with little theatre, and that it was being performed in a primary school gym. Actually, come to find out, Urinetown is a Tony Award winning Broadway musical ... guess it just hadn't made it to Overture yet. ;)

Excited about the prospect of a proper night out, I set about planning dinner somewhere before the show. I consulted Trip Advisor, a map of the area and our Entertainment coupon book and decided on Cho Goa at the Crowne Plaza, an Asian restaurant that serves alcohol and looked to be within walking distance. The show started at 7:30pm so we headed out for dinner around 6 ... and that was my first mistake.

Traffic was light so we made it downtown without any trouble and found a great parking spot in front of the Crowne Plaza (and since it was Friday, all parking was free!) Lucky us! Then we walked into the restaurant and asked for a table for two and found out they don't start serving dinner until 7pm. (sigh) all those wonderful plans up in smoke.

So we drove around a bit and decided to park a little closer to the school and find a restaurant in the Novotel. After driving in and then back out of a parking garage, we decided it was actually our best bet for a parking spot on a Friday night ... and we assumed it would be free (yep, you can guess what happened later. :) We ended up at the Beaujolais restaurant, which surprised us with some really good food and even a pork menu (you don't find that very often in Abu Dhabi!) We also had a decent glass of wine with dinner, so all was well.

Then it was off to the theatre and despite a really bad sound system and mediocre performances, the play was entertaining. I think it's actually gut-splitting hilarious with the professional cast, a decent stage and a top notch sound system - I know we were missing a lot of the funny dialog just because it was difficult to hear. The production certainly won't win any awards, but it was a whole lot better than sitting at home and watching TV.

We stepped out of the school to walk back to our car and were hit by the worsening humidity. It's funny, the day wasn't all that bad, but the evening was really sticky. Luckily, the parking garage wasn't too far away. And yes, we realized as we got up to the exit gate that we needed to pay for parking. The cost wasn't an issue, but the garage is set up so that you pay BEFORE you get to the exit gate. So I hopped out to pay and Brian crossed his fingers that the car behind us wouldn't honk too long or too loud. :) They actually did the same thing we did, so we escaped without getting honked at.

If you get the chance to see a professional production of Urinetown, I would highly recommend it. It's "pee your pants" funny ... pun intended. :) 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Learning Mahjong and keeping busy

The biggest challenge since moving to Abu Dhabi has been keeping busy. As someone who has worked since the age of 15, I don't do very well with months of free time and no structure. I know that sounds horrible to some of you who would easily and happily keep yourself entertained, but for me, I've had to work at it.

The first thing I did was get into a job hunting routine. I have about 5 job boards I check every day and I probably send out 3-5 resumes each week to interesting looking jobs. I've talked a lot about the job hunt on here, so I won't bore you with any more details.

Another routine I started is the morning info gathering. I start with my email, then check in on Facebook, LinkedIn, then my Blogger dashboard to see if there are any new posts on the blogs I'm following, then the newspaper. I've never been a newspaper reader (only got the Sunday paper for the ads really back home) but have found it really helpful to get to know the country and culture a bit better. There is about a page dedicated to US news each day and it's been mostly about Obama's international visits and the tornados. It's very interesting to see what's covered and what's ignored. I have a feeling that when we visit WI in September, there will be a lot of things we'll have not heard about over here.

I've also starting cooking a lot more, so have been looking for recipes, grocery shopping and whipping up new things to eat, some which turn out great (African Chickpea soup) and some which bomb pretty badly (homemade Arayas), but it's fun and passes the time. Then, of course, there's cleaning and laundry, which is an ongoing battle given all the sand, dust and cat hair. :)

That's all well and good and between all those routines, the gym, the pool, books, hulu and the internet, I can keep myself relatively busy, but the problem is I can go literally days without talking to anyone but Brian. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Brian dearly, but ... well ... I needed to make some friends, for his sake and for mine.

That's why I joined a few of the ladies coffee mornings. There are oodles of them all over town so there's a good variety to choose from. The first one I joined is run by some British women and consists of primarily Brits, but all nationalities are welcome. You pay a fee and get coffee, tea, sandwiches, pastries and juice and it's just a social gathering place. They have a newcomers table, which is nice the first few times to get your bearings. They also organize all day outings to different places close by and have a book club, mahjong group and canasta games. Another is run by the Americans, where the majority are from the US and Canada (again all nationalities welcome) and I don't know if it was the familiar accents, the lovely cafe where the meetings are held or the people I met there, but this has become my favorite. They have about an hour of social and then have a speaker of some kind. The speakers might be about a charity, an event happening, sometimes sales people, a cooking demonstration where I learned to make the best hummous ever! They also have groups and organize outings (this is the group I went to Sharjah with) - book club, movie group, neighborhood walks, supper club. There are many more groups like this, but I think you get the idea.

I ended up in a Mahjong group a bit by accident. One afternoon, I was sitting by the toxic green pool (you'll be happy to know they have since figured out the correct chlorine to heat ratio and things are back to normal) and met Gill, who also lives in the compound. She told me about a group of ladies she knows from her many stints abroad and they have coffee on Mondays and play Mahjong on Tuesdays. After learning that Mahjong is a Chinese game played with tiles and a bit of a cross between Dominos and Gin Rummy, I decided, 'why not? I've got nothing better to do and I'll meet some new people.' So I went and totally loved it, to my surprise! I had already begun thinking about how I would bow out of future games, but to my shock, it was a blast. I've been now 3 times and really enjoy it. The other benefit is the company - a group of women from Scotland and UK and sooo funny, down to earth and welcoming.  And we've got a carpool system so I don't have to take the bus for an hour to get there, which is my normal mode of transit - with the temps rarely below 100 degrees now, a car ride is a blessing!

So now I play Mahjong and keeping busy has gotten a little less difficult.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Finally, a good steak place!

We've been looking for a good steak place since we arrived in UAE about 4 1/2 months ago (can you believe it's been that long already?!) with very little luck. We have found a few restaurants that serve steak, that's not the issue. The problem had been the quality. We both grew up on Dairy farms with access to really good steak joints in the midwest, so I guess you could call us steak snobs. The steaks we've had up to now have either been overcooked, or just really lacking in flavor.

Well, all that changed when we went out with some neighbors to "The Meat Company". I know, cool name, huh? First, the restaurant is located at the Souk Qaryat Al Beri which is between the Shangri-La and Fairmont hotels in the Between the Bridges area. Souk Qaryat Al Beri is a very nice, posh market area with local shops and a slew of really nice restaurants. In addition, there is a nice view of the water that separates Abu Dhabi island from the rest of the city. They've even got a little boat that takes you through the canal of sorts within the market area and the hotels. It's a very nice area, caters to tourists so is a bit more upscale ... and as a result a bit pricey too. But pricey isn't an issue because we've got our Entertainer book with 2 for 1 entree coupons to all the nice restaurants.

We arrived and were seated right away - the place wasn't very busy - on the second floor with a great view of the water and the new Four Seasons hotel that's being built. The restaurant is beautiful and done up in an African theme, which we of course just loved. They also have an extensive wine cellar and a huge tower of a room of their wine collection which you wind around as you climb the stairs to the second floor. Then there's the menu, prime cuts of beef from US, New Zealand and Australia, all cooked to perfection and served with either garlic, mushroom or pepper sauce (any guesses which sauce Brian selected? :) We had a lovely meal with really great company - our neighbors who we met because of this blog! She ran across one of my postings about the apartment complex and then got in touch when they moved in. How cool is that?

So, thank goodness, we've found a good steak in UAE. Now our only challenge is that we've only got 3 coupons for this restaurant in our Entertainer book! :)

This is from their website and gives you a sense of the place.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Job Hunting Update

After a very long couple of months with literally no responses to my numerous job applications, it looks like things might be moving forward again. (Gosh, I hope this post doesn't jinx me!!) The good news has always been that there continues to be jobs posted on the internet that are of interest. I send out probably between 3-5 CVs each week to various positions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Some of them I'm perfectly qualified for and others I'm missing 1-3 requirements but send my resume in anyway as you never know where the hiring manager will need/be willing to compromise.

The problem was, I wasn't hearing back from ANYONE, and I have to say the silence was doing a number on my confidence. Then I started talking to a few others in my boat and realized things don't move quickly in UAE and just because I'm ready to go to work doesn't mean the perfect job has been sitting there waiting for me. So, I tried to relax, enjoy the fact that I'm not working and explore the city, meet some new friends and just calm down. I tried to bake homemade bread (not a successful adventure), went kayaking (fun), learned to play Mahjong (very fun and met some awesome new friends), and have cooked dinner most nights (mixed results! :)

Over the last two weeks, things seem to be looking up. First, I asked our friend Eli to look over my resume and give me some feedback. He's a very successful businessman in this area and had some good suggestions to improve my CV. Then I redid all my profiles on the job boards, which refreshed my information and put a greater emphasis on my leadership experience. Maybe it's just coincidence, but I think this may have helped my CV get a bit more exposure ... or maybe it's all just lucky timing.

So here's what's currently in the hopper:
* Interviews with Emirates Airlines at the end of May
* My CV was passed on to an equipment leasing company
* My CV was passed on to a luxury retailer
* My CV was passed on to Emirates NBD bank in Dubai
* and I met with a recruiting agency who gave me some good pointers on salary negotiation and are now looking out for potential opportunities.

Nothing is solid or all that promising yet, but at least there's some activity again, which makes me feel a whole lot better. I'll keep you posted and please continue to wish me luck!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Cultural Day of Volunteering

Since I'm not currently working, I spend a lot of time a) job hunting, and b) looking for interesting things to do. And, if I can combine the two pursuits all the better. So when a woman at the last coffee morning alerted me to a volunteer opportunity related to economic development, I was all ears. I exchanged some emails with the coordinator and was connected with an educational event for 1st year university students from Al Ain. The all day workshop included a hands-on business simulation designed to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship among Emirati youth. Right up my alley and an opportunity to network with other volunteers in the Abu Dhabi business sector and hopefully snag a few business cards.

We were asked to arrive by 8:30am for a volunteer briefing and the event was scheduled to begin at 9:00am. The students were coming from Al Ain, which is about a 90 minute drive from Abu Dhabi, give or take traffic. At 8:45, the coordinator came over to where we had gathered (there were about 8 of us) and explained that they had run into a few snags so the workshop would need to start a bit later than planned. When one of the volunteers asked how many students were anticipated, we found out the gist of the "snag" - 80 students had committed to coming and only 15 were waiting to get on the bus in Al Ain. So, the school principal and some others were busy trying to round up additional participants. Laughing about how typical this is for UAE, we all sat down again and settled in for at least a 90 minute wait.

And, the next couple of hours were some of the best I've had to date in UAE. There were 6 of us waiting together: me, another woman from Houston, TX and four men from Syria, Jordan, Bahrain and UAE. Everyone was open, friendly and had a great sense of humor so we talked about all kinds of things that up until this conversation I would have thought might be considered taboo. We discussed the culture of the UAE schools, the lack of ambition among the Emirati youth (many of whom are destined to take over the family business whether they do well in school or not), language and culture, the job market, the oil industry ... we literally talked for hours as the program didn't end up getting started until 12:30!! But, the time flew and it was such a unique and wonderful opportunity to really talk to people from this region. These are the kinds of discussions I wish I had more access to - the ability to learn what the people and the culture are really like here, rather than just second hand info from the American expat wives I meet at coffee mornings who often have very little exposure to locals or Gulf Region expats. I was also able to glean some insight into the job market and how slow everything is, which made me feel a bit better about not having found a job yet.

Around 11:00, our coordinator (who did an excellent job keeping us updated on progress by the way) escorted us to the press conference they had planned for the event. We joked that it seemed a bit optimistic to hold the press conference BEFORE the students had actually arrived, but we went along anyway. The press conference, unfortunately, was almost entirely in Arabic, so most of it was lost on me, but I did see the article in the paper the next day, which was kind of fun (and in English). After the press conference, we went back downstairs, had a light lunch and waited a bit longer. Around 12:15 or so, we finally got our volunteer briefing and the event started about 12:30pm.

We ended up with 40 1st year university students, all women, from all over UAE but all studying in Al Ain. All but one were in full Abaya and Sheila and a few had their faces covered as well. One interesting challenge for the facilitator and organizers is permission for photography. They wanted to really publicize this event and use it to drum up future interest in the program and the organization, so they had a photographer there taking pictures. The problem is that not all Emirati will give permission to have their photos taken (and my understanding is that you never take their photo without permission). So, we had the group split into sides of the room - those who gave permission and those that did not. Further difficulty came at the end when the team who one the challenge was made up of girls who did not give permission, so the final photo is with the 3rd place team, a few girls from the other two teams who didn't mind a photo and all of us volunteers. :)

The general plan of the day (which remember had to be reworked as the time was now cut in half) was to have the teams think of a business they would like to start in UAE, create a business plan, and at the end of the session make a presentation to some 'investors' who would then judge the presentations, give some feedback and declare a winner. Our job as volunteers was to mentor the group and provide our business experience and guidance. I was originally supposed to be paired with the Emirati volunteer, Ali, since I don't speak Arabic, but at the last minute, we ran short and couldn't double up, so I got a group of 10 lovely Emirati girls to work with.

I thought we were off to a good start as I introduced myself, made sure they could all speak English (head nods around the table) and then said they were "lucky" because with me they would be forced to practice their English as I didn't understand any Arabic. Thank goodness UAE culture is built on politeness or at least half of them probably would have demanded another mentor! :) And for the first 5-10 minutes, everyone really tried to speak English, but as the ideas starting flowing, I could tell they just couldn't communicate fast enough, so I didn't mind as they eventually morphed into Arabic. We muddled through just fine, and I was able to help them along as they got stuck or wanted me to review their work to date. And, gotta love em, they did their presentation to the judges in English, which I really appreciated (and I think may have gotten them bonus points as they were all encouraged to use English throughout the program and they were one of only two groups who presented in English).

My group didn't win (or even place) but I think they had fun and learned a little from the day. I certainly learned a lot about the business community, social work organizations, university students and volunteering in UAE. It was a great day, and if the timing and location works out, I'll probably do it again.

Oh and a few things you might be wondering about:

  • yes, only women attended, which may have caught you by surprise, but is very typical here as often classrooms and events like this are segregated.
  • it may also seem strange that the girls were strongly encouraged to speak English when their native language is Arabic. In fact, most of the schooling is conducted in English since UAE is really trying to be an international business hub for the world. As such, English is the primary language used in business here even though Arabic is the official language of the country.
  • hopefully you were impressed that the 4 men from all over the Gulf were open and very friendly with the two American women at the volunteer table. I know I was - goes to show those stereotypes are often crap. 
  • and finally some of you might be wondering if I really stayed calm given the very long delay to the start of the program, and I can honestly say I did just fine. Had we not had such wonderful conversation to make those hours pass quickly, I probably would have gone home and given up on the whole thing, but actually, I'm kind of glad things were delayed as I got an even better opportunity to meet some business people in the area. Oh, and yes, I did snag some business cards and have sent my CV out to a few more companies! :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

39.99 plus shipping & handling

One of my college friends from way back posted this on her Facebook wall just after her 40 something birthday, and I have decided to steal it. Instead of thinking of myself as over 40, for the next few years I'm 39.99 plus shipping and handling ... in a few more years maybe I'll add sales tax. :) Yes, all this is to say I had a birthday last week and like all birthdays at this age, it was pretty much just another day.

Actually, it was Wednesday, which is kind of a bummer day for a birthday anyway because it's in the middle of the week. It also happens to typically be my least busy day of each week, so I had nothing planned. I ended up spending the day on some laundry, brownie baking (oh, and the BEST BROWNIES EVER, I'm not kidding!) and then caught up on some American TV courtesy of Hulu. Not very impressive, I know.

Brian came home and we headed out to the Intercontinental for a wine and cheese event they host every Wednesday. We both love wine and love cheese, so what more perfect way to celebrate getting older?

The first part of the adventure was to find the Intercontinental, which is a huge hotel complex on 30th street. Easy right? We've passed it a couple of times while driving so had a general idea of where it was located, but didn't know exactly where to turn and how to get in to the hotel itself. So after trying to find it by looking for a familiar landmark, I pulled out our Abu Dhabi map (NEVER leave home without it). I saw the road sign for 13th street, found it on the map and directed us in the right direction ... and then the roundabout on the map wasn't where it was supposed to be ... then the turn for 30th street was missing too. After a couple more U-Turns and a few choice words, we figured out that I had found the WRONG 13th street on the map. Remember that post about confusing street signs? Once we figured out what I had done wrong, we quickly got back on track and found the hotel.

We had the valet park our car (have I mentioned that ALL the hotels have free valet parking?) and stepped inside to find the Piano lounge. All the tables were full, which was a good sign, but also meant we'd have to wait for something to become available. We decided to check out the other restaurants in the hotel, but ended up coming back to wait. We got a table outside while we waited - yep, it's getting hotter so tables outside are easy to come by these days. :) We got our first glass of wine and then a table inside became available, so luckily, we didn't sweat too much.

They had 3 types of white and 3 types of red to choose from so we made our choices and then headed to the cheese table. I would guess they had at least 25 different kinds of cheese on this table, and they were really good ones too. Let's just say, a dinner of cheese was right up our WI Dairy alley. About 8:00, someone started playing jazz piano, which was nice, and the best part is that we didn't have any smokers nearby!

So all and all, a pretty good birthday .... and worth the shipping and handling charges. :)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dates in the Desert

No no no, not THOSE dates (although Arab men are quite tall, dark and handsome), I'm talking about Desert Dates for Dessert. :) (And yes, it actually did take me a while to come up with that, but of course, I've got nothing but time on my hands until I find a job.)

Dates are a big deal in the Arab world and UAE, among other Arab countries, are quite proud of the ones they produce. If you've never had a date, it's a little like a very large raisin (in that it's a dried fruit) but is richer in flavor and softer in texture (at least that's my best description of them). Simply put, they are delicious! Especially here where they are abundant and extremely fresh.

My first date was day 3 or 4 of our Abu Dhabi Adventure. We had gone out to visit properties with our real estate agent and were waiting in the lobby of the Park Rotana hotel for the Manager to show us around. Many of the nice hotels, banks and other businesses serve Arabic coffee with dates to their customers while they wait and that was the case with the Park Rotana. As I've mentioned before, the coffee is a super strong brew of very dark coffee with cardamon in it that's served in beautiful small cups and often served with a date or two on the side. They have seeds in them so the proper way to eat them is to pop the whole thing in your mouth, eat around the seed and then spit the seed out into your hand (and then discreetly put it in your napkin or on your plate). And they are fantastic and the perfect accompaniment to the strong, bitter coffee.

Since that first taste, I've had them off an on, sometimes at events or while waiting for someone at a business or as part of a buffet. I hadn't gotten brave enough to buy any for home, though, as I just didn't know enough about them. And, they aren't all that attractive, so it's hard to tell if you're buying good quality (at least to my untrained eye). I finally got up the nerve just before our trip to Lebanon as I decided to take some dates as a thank you gift to our hosts.

The city buses had been wrapped with the ads for a Date store called Zadina, so I found the shop and decided to make a purchase. It's a beautiful store and they sell all kinds of dates as well as other treats that are all sweetened by dates (no cane sugar in anything) including jams, ice cream, truffles. I wanted to stick with dates and even then had quite a lot to choose from. First they carry 6 different kinds of dates from different parts of UAE. My guide pointed out which ones were sweet, which were more oily (his words, I think he meant moist) and which were not as sweet (so good for diabetics :) To be honest, I couldn't tell enough of a difference, but maybe after a few more years I'll be able to call myself a connoisseur. In addition to plain dates, they have stuffed dates, which are spilt open, seed removed and then stuffed with other dried fruit, thick jam or nuts - everything from dried apricot to pistachios. Mmmm, even better than the plain ones. But that wasn't all, the real gems were stuffed AND covered in chocolate (I know, could I have found anything better?) White chocolate, milk, dark, all kinds of stuffing ... heaven. They even have little chocolate or candy coated date pieces (for the kids I was told) which are a bit like chocolate covered raisins, but oh so much better. I didn't even think about buying those as I'd be too tempted to shovel handfuls into my mouth throughout the day! (I have the same problem with M&Ms)

So, I picked out a nice box for our hosts and headed out - mission accomplished. And the best part is that when Libby (our host) saw them, she was thrilled. She loves dates and thinks the UAE dates are better than what she's been able to find in Lebanon. A few weeks later, I went back and got a smaller box for Brian and I, which I then took a picture of so you could get a look. I'm pretty sure these will be on my list of "gifts to bring home when visiting the US" so stay in touch and you too might be able to have a Desert Date for Dessert. (okay, yeah, I'm done now. ;)

Ooops, looks like there's a chocolate one missing on
the end there - couldn't even wait until after the photo!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sharjah Blue Souk

On Thursday I went with a women's group on a bus trip to the Blue Souk in Sharjah. Actually, I think the proper name is the Central Market, but as you'll see by the pictures, the outside of the buildings are done in beautiful blue tile, so everyone calls it the Blue Souk. It's about a 2 hour bus ride from Abu Dhabi.

Sharjah itself is really beautiful - somehow seems a little cleaner than AD, but that may have just been the first impression or a result of the bright sunny skies. The souk is made up of two huge buildings, one on either side of a small street. The buildings are then connected over the road in two places by large bridges that have shops in them as well. I'm not sure what makes one shopping complex a 'souk' and another a 'mall', but to me, the Blue Souk was just a large mall with a higher proportion of antique, gold, pashmina and carpet shops. Don't get me wrong, it's very nice and has some unique items and shops that you don't find much in Abu Dhabi, but if I had to do it all over again, I'm not sure it was worth 4 hours on the bus. I think what I'd like to do instead is make a weekend of it and find a few other things to do in Sharjah. Here are a few shots of the outside of the souk.

We arrived about 10:15 or so and shopped until about 1:00. My favorite places were the small antique shops crammed with all kinds of Arabic looking items. And I am not exaggerating when I say crammed - floor to ceiling and everything in between. I had to hold my purse close to my body while walking through for fear I'd knock something off the shelves. Bronze sculptures of camels (and reclining frogs - not sure what that's about), glass lamps, silver jewelry, wood carvings, antique coffee pots, knives and a whole lot more. I've got my eye on some of the glass lanterns, which are so beautiful, but I'm not ready to commit to one quite yet. I almost bought another pashmina in one of the shops, but couldn't get the price low enough to suit me so walked away from it. Pashminas are everywhere and I already have one, which I use all the time, so I'll pick up another one at some point, but I need to be in love with it. Side note: You'd think that with it being so hot, there would be no need for a wrap (pashmina) - the temp is over 100 every day now after all, but the problem is the hotter it gets outside, the colder they set the air conditioning. We were at Starbucks yesterday for a couple of hours while Brian did some work and I read and about 90 minutes in, I had to step outside and walk around the block to warm up (It was 107 yesterday!!) Anyway, I digress ...

After our shopping, we headed to the Sharjah Dhow Restaurant, which is a floating Dhow (boat) that serves traditional Arabic fare and the BEST mixed grill I've had in UAE. Here's a typical Lebanese/Arabic meal. You start with 2-4 cold starters - in this case, it was Houmous (the correct spelling for this part of the world), which is a mixture of chick peas (garbanzo beans), garlic, lemon, oil and sesame paste usually served with warm Arabic bread, which is similar to pitas but a bit thinner. We also had Fatoush salad, which is lettuce, tomato, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, crispy chip thingies and a light oil & vinegar dressing and I think Moutable, which is houmous with roasted eggplant and pine nuts.  After the starters, we were presented with a plate of mixed grill. This is an assortment of meats served with some roasted tomatoes and onions and often a type of yogurt sauce. It usually includes chunks of lamb, kababs of chicken, skewers of kofta, which is minced beef with spices, chunks of beef and Arayas, which is the kofta beef flattened between two pieces of arabic bread and then grilled (my favorite) - all of it flavored with so much garlic you can taste it the rest of the day. After your mixed grill, you are often presented with a bowl of fruit or an assortment of desserts. We didn't have any fruit or desserts on this trip - maybe because it was lunch or maybe that's just what they arranged. In any case, we were too full to have any anyway! It was a fantastic meal and just what we needed before our 2 hour bus trip back to Abu Dhabi ... ugh! :) Here is a photo of the restaurant and the surrounding park area.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Updates to the Compound

Things at Al Seef compound are progressing nicely, although progress always seems slow when you're waiting. Here are a few things that have been added, improved or replaced since we moved in mid-February.

  • The Pool is now up and running and even has nice sun chairs and umbrellas on the deck. I keep hoping they'll also provide cushions for the chairs, but so far, no luck. Some of us think (hope?) that once they have a full time manager on the premises, the cushions will come. The pool is really nice - very long, so good for laps (if only I swam laps!). One problem, however, a few days ago, it was toxic green ... really bad, couldn't even see the bottom. Three days later it's back to blue and only a little hazy, but I'm still a little afraid to jump in - how exactly do you go from toxic green to clear blue so quickly? I doubt very much they drained it, cleaned it and refilled it.
  • The roads have been completed, then torn up again and then completed a second time. Not sure why as the first roads seemed perfectly fine. Rumor has it the Sheikh who owns the compound didn't like the first bricks so had the whole thing redone. It was a total pain too as every day you had to take a different route out of the place (and usually didn't figure that out before having to back up and turn around). That and the sound of the cement cutter they use was about to drive me bonkers - super high pitched whine and it would go on all day long! But it's all done now and looks just great. 
  • In addition to the new roads, they've added speed bumps (they call them speed humps here) so no one can go zooming through the compound, which is good. And they've painted lines, numbers for the parking spots and painted all the curbs. Looks really good.
  • And we now have a lighted sign with the name of the compound on it, which helps tremendously for deliveries! There is a front and back entrance to the compound, each with a nice sign. Only the back entrance is functional for now as they are doing work on the main road outside the main entrance. And, unfortunately, that road work seems to be taking forever so I'm guessing it'll be another 2-3 months before we can use the front entrance.
  • We also now have garbage cans outside each building, which is so much nicer than leaving your trash outside the door and having it ravaged by the stray cats. No recycling yet, but I'm still hopeful. There have been a lot of articles in the paper about saving water, so I'm hoping recycling is right around the corner. We're close enough to Masdar city, that I'm hoping the idea of sustainability will spill over. :)
  • They also recently brought in some huge planters, that are positioned around the courtyards, but don't have anything in them. I'm guessing they'll add some plants at some point, but for now we just have the large planters.
  • The BBQ area now has a kids play set and picnic tables. No grills, so I'm not sure if that's still part of the plan or not - time will tell. 
  • And the most exciting development is that they delivered the gym equipment 2 days ago! We've been anxiously awaiting completion of the gym and it looks like they're finally making some progress. The area is still locked - I suppose they have to set everything where they want it, get the electricity and air working and test everything out, but I'm really hoping within the next week, we'll be able to use the gym.
  • They've also been doing some quality checks on our back patio garden area, which is good because some of the impatiens have died off in the heat. They've taken them out and I assume they'll be back to plant replacements or something different for the summer. They rang the bell this morning at 7am, but Brian told them to come back later - 7 is a bit early to drop in unannounced in my opinion!
So, things are going well and improving day by day. Most of the construction now seems to be complete now that the roads are done, so the whole compound is a lot quieter, which is really nice. There are plans for another compound and a shopping mall on either side of us, so I'm sure it's just a matter of time before different construction starts up, but for now, we'll enjoy a little of the peace and quiet and a bit less dust!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Arab Market

One of my duties as a housewife is the event planning for our weekends. So, I spend some of my time each week trolling websites, the newspaper, weekly magazines and chat rooms for interesting things to do. And for the most part, we've done some pretty interesting things since we arrived in Abu Dhabi. As such, I was excited to see an announcement for the 2011 Arab Market, which was described like this on the website:

"The Arab Market is a popular shopping fair that attracts thousands of people for its enjoyable shopping experience. From Readymade garments, abayas, silks and Kashmere shawls to exquisite paintings and artefacts, the show offers a great mixture of the latest and traditional shopping."

Sounds good, right? It wasn't. We were hoping to find some nice decorations or wall art for the apartment that we could then take home with us as souvenirs. Well, let's just say we were in and out of there in less than 30 minutes and that included the 10 minutes it took to walk back and forth from the parking garage. Here are some of the clues that should have tipped me off (hindsight is always 20/20).

Clue #1: The Location
The market was held at the Exhibition Center. I really should know better having grown up in Madison and the 'markets' scheduled at the Alliant Center, but hey, who knew? I thought maybe things were different here.

Clue #2: Lubna's description
At the coffee morning on Thursday, I mentioned to a few of the ladies that we were planning to go, and Lubna (who is from Arabic descent) said she had gone the previous weekend. I asked her what she thought and she said, "it was okay, kind of ghetto". Hmmm, didn't really stop to think what she might have meant by 'ghetto', and didn't think to ask her to clarify.

Clue #3: The duration
This market lasted 10 days! What authentic, handicraft/art market could stay open that long and still have enough merchandise. (sigh) it's all so clear when you assemble the clues!

Clue #4: The market itself
We walked into the Expo Center and it was like a cross between the WI State Fair and WalMart on a Friday night. So much so, in fact, that we agreed that if we saw a booth selling the Arab Sham-wow, we were going to purchase one. Alas, no luck - this market didn't have anything quite that practical! 

We wandered around for about 20 minutes or so, trying valiantly to dodge the smoke from all the incense burners, the screaming kids running all over the place, and the hawkers wanting to give us a 'good price'. So what did the market have? First, all kinds of perfumes and incense, which is a big deal here for Arabs. If you think women in the states wear a lot of perfume, you ain't smelled nothing! The scents are just too strong for Brian and I and we can hardly stand to walk by the perfume stores in the malls, let alone in this cramped expo space. There were also lots of clothing stalls with Abayas & Sheilas (this is the black overdress and head scarf many Arab women wear in public) as well as all sorts of caftan-like dresses and leggings in every color and pattern under the sun. Purses and jewelry (but the WalMart kind, not the Cartier kind) and some food stuffs like honey or grains or spices. There were also a few stalls selling serving dishes and such (no gadgets really just the serving platters, etc). And then there was a large stall selling "art". I think the main challenge is that the Arab tastes are very ornate and ... well ... gaudy by my standards.  The artwork was all gilded, ornate frames of thick oil paintings of bowls of fruit or Victorian children playing or Old English hunting scenes. Not our taste at all - more like something you'd see in Versailles or the Royal palace. 

We didn't find a single thing even worth considering, so the whole trip was a bust. Well, not a total bust - we did get out of the house and it did give me something to write about! :) I just hope I can remember this experience when I run across the enticing advertising next year. :)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dubai's Gold Souk

Late last Friday afternoon, we decided to head out to Dubai to see the Gold Souk area. I've been to Dubai a handful of times now, but have seen almost nothing of the city as each trip has been business related so I either went with Brian on his errands or hung out for the day at the Dubai Mall. This was an opportunity to see something else so I was excited. We left around 3:30pm for the 90 minute drive - the souks are typically open from about 10am - 1pm and then open again at 5pm and stay open until about 11pm or later.

The Souk area is the older part of Dubai and has a lot more character and interest than the sparkly new malls. We found our way to the Creek and found a place to park on the street, which was pretty lucky. Now our only challenge was being able to find the car again when we were ready to head home! We took note of our location and then headed towards the creek so we could take a Dhow boat over to the other side where the main gold souk is located. Along the way, we stumbled across the Dubai museum, but it wasn't open so I only caught a photo of the fishing boat outside.

There are souks lining both sides of the creek so we ended up meandering through one set to get to the boat dock. I was surprised to find most of the shops closed (and by now it was at least 5:30pm). Not sure if the hours are different on Fridays or if only certain shops are open on Fridays. In any case, the souk area itself was beautiful and there were a few stores open. A spice shop, which smelled wonderful - I'd still like to figure out what all those spices are used for sometime. We also passed a man selling fresh squeezed orange juice - just a small stall in the middle of one of the hallways where most of the surrounding stores were closed. A few tourist trinket shops and some interesting flower shops that reminded me of the lei shops in Hawaii. They had these wonderful smelling flowers that were almost like perfume and threaded into necklaces like Hawaiian leis. We saw a few Indian women wearing them in their hair. This area of the market had a very distinctive Indian feel.

You can see the orange juice stand on the left of the 2nd photo.

At the dock we found tons of dhow boats that act as taxis from one side of the creek to the other. It's a noisy smelly place and we both agreed that no amount of money would get us to swim in this creek! We hopped on board, paid our dirham each (27 cents) for the trip over and I got out my camera. (And yes, I look like a tourist everywhere I go around here with my camera, but I need to capture this stuff while it still seems novel and new. I just know my Dad is smiling from ear to ear as he reads this!! :)

This is what the dhows look like. Very simple, just a wooden bench to sit on and they pile in a lot of people, but you're not crammed in as there are so many boats, we didn't have to wait more than 1-2 minutes. They are motor powered, loud and stinky!

You can get a sense of the number of boats on the water here - it's as crazy as the roads!

I thought this photo was interesting as you see the city skyline in the background and the different types of boats on the water. We think that big, modern looking vessel is also some kind of public transport, but don't know for sure. It had RTA on the side, which is the Road Transit Authority.

The trip was maybe 5-10 minutes and pretty uneventful. We hopped off and made our way across the street to find the Gold Souk. Since we didn't know exactly where it was and Brian refuses to consult a map, we wandered around a little bit and eventually found our way to it. On the way, we passed what we refer to as the 'Wal-Mart' souk because it has everything that has ever been made of plastic or polyester in it!

And then we found the Gold souk and the number of tourists increased significantly. This area of Dubai is well known and a huge tourist spot. Gold of every kind can be found here and Dubai is known for it's quality (all of it 20 carats or more) and it's prices. And this is another place where you're expected to haggle. Each piece is first weighed and then multiplied by the price of gold at that time. That part of the price in non-negotiable, but then on top of the price per gram, the jeweler adds on the costs of creating the piece - that's what you can bargain. How much, I don't really know as we weren't in the market for any gold this trip, but I'm sure I'll find out before we leave UAE! ;) I can't even begin to describe the bling of this place, so I'll just let a few photos do the job for me.

As we were walking around and ogling all the jewelry, we had numerous young men ask if we were interested in "watches, handbags, sunglasses - very good copies". One man proudly showed us his fake Rolex and said Brian could get one too for "a very good price". After about the 10th such approach, I relented and decided I wanted to check out the underworld of fake luxury goods. The guy took us down one of the souk alleys and handed us over to another gentleman (apparently the first guy is just for fishing in the tourists). The second guy then took us to a building with a small elevator and said his shop was on the 3rd floor. There he said, he had handbags, watches, sunglasses and wallets all very good copies and at a good price. There was nothing sinister or scary about it, so we went up. We ended up in a two room apartment of sorts, very small, with all kind of purses lining the walls. Prada, Gucci, LV, you name it, and all fakes. Since I'm not a connoisseur of fine luxury goods, I couldn't tell them apart, but I'm guessing anyone who shops for these types of products or owns one could see the difference. We looked around a bit and saw a few of the watches, which is where I could see the quality wasn't that good. I expect the 'gold' on those watches wears off pretty quickly. So, we said thanks and headed back down to the souk. I think if I really want a Gucci, I'll save my pennies and spring for the real thing. ;)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Masdar City Market

This past weekend we attended a street fair and organic market in Masdar City. Masdar City is a university, a place to live, a place to shop and a place to set up a business - all focused on sustainability and creating luxury with the smallest carbon footprint possible. They are doing a ton of experiments and research on renewable energy sources and anything that reduces, reuses and recycles. The point of the market was to build awareness of the area and the work they are doing and establish a marketplace of organic goods and green services. Since that sounded right up our alley, we went out for a visit on Friday morning.

The city itself does not allow any cars, so when we arrived, we were directed to a parking area outside the walls. We could already tell the place was packed as all the nice parking (paved with shaded covers) was full. We ended up in the full sun in a large patch of sandy dirt. So, we put up our back window shade (part of the fancy car) and our cheap little sun shade for the front and headed to the city, which was less than a 5 minute walk. As you can see below, they are still expanding and completing the city. The large tower you see in the middle is the wind turbine, which provides a lot of power to the city.

Once we got to the city entrance, we got in line for the Personal Rapid Transit. These are really cute little cars that are unmanned and powered by electricity . They have a set route in and then out of the city and they make the trip all on their own. Pretty cool and very futuristic feeling. As you can imagine, my engineer husband loved them. :) And they were pretty amazing - you get in, press the button on the console and like magic is takes you to the next station within the city. The one way trip was about 2-3 minutes.

Once in the city itself, we filled out our raffle tickets and Brian got in line for the free popcorn. I checked out a vendor selling water systems that pull the moisture from the air. The water tastes just like you would expect from a cooler and the whole concept was pretty cool. Unfortunately, the price tag was what I've come to expect from all the 'green' gadgets out there - a residential unit started at 4500 dirham (about $1225)!! YIKES

We just wandered around a bit. There actually wasn't a lot there and the place was much smaller than I expected, but there was an organic market, a few coffee shops, a smoothie stand and a few booths selling everything from fabrics to foods to skin products. They also had some face painting and other kid friendly activities. There were people everywhere and long lines for everything, so we took our walk around the area and then headed out. They actually were offering a tour of the city, which we would have really liked to attend, but we would have had to wait around for and hour and a half and the crowds were just too annoying for us to consider it. I'm hoping they'll do it again and we'll have a chance to take the tour. I think it would be interesting to see more of the research they are doing. Here's a shot of the city itself.

We took the Personal Rapid Transit back out of the city and headed off to our car. And, after about 5 wrong turns and an extra 20 minutes, we found our way out of the complex and back onto the road home.  Getting lost is now just part of the journey here. :)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Observations - day 107

Seemed like a good day for a few more observations ...

Forget that electric toothbrush as there are no outlets in any of the bathrooms. I didn't even notice this until we moved in, although I had experienced the same thing in our temp hotel, but thought it was just a quirk of the hotel. Nope, no outlets in any bathrooms. Rumor has it it's a building code/regulation and that I won't ever find an outlet in any bathroom. I'm also told that's a very good thing given the quality (meaning lack there of) of electrical workmanship here. Faulty wiring and running water do seem like two things to keep far away from each other. :)

On a related note, I read a chat room post that said this woman had called in an electrician to install an outlet so she could plug in her washer/dryer unit. Apparently, the wiring was there, but not an actual outlet. She assumed the electrician would instal an outlet and then plug in the unit. It seems she hasn't lived in UAE long enough to have learned the lesson not to assume anything. The electrician proceeded to cut off the plug on the washer/dryer unit, strip the wires, connect them to the wires coming out of the wall and wrap the whole mess up in electrical tape! (note to self - never hire an electrician)

Speaking of bathrooms and actually kitchens for that matter. Here in UAE, they all have drains in the floors. All floors here are tile and get washed quite frequently, so our best guess is that these drains allow the maids to really wash down the bathroom without worrying about having any standing water on the floors - everything just drains down as they clean. I've been using a damp mop myself so can't speak to the value of these drains. And, our apartment has nice metal covers on them so no creepy crawlies use them as an entrance into the place.

And one more note about bathrooms this time the public kind. First restrooms are much more hidden than in the states. They are discreetly tucked away down long hallways or in very back corners of the malls and sometimes tricky to locate. Nice for the esthetics, but a pain when you really have to go! Also, you almost always find a women in the restroom cleaning up after everyone ... and I mean everyone. After EACH person uses the stall, the woman goes in, hoses down the place (remember those drains? - yep, in here too), squeegees the floor and then lets you in. Luckily, I've never really had to wait, but it does make me wonder if the process is different if there's a long line waiting. And when I say she hoses down the bathroom, I'm not joking. All bathrooms have a small hose and sprayer nozzle right next to the toilet bowl - usually on the opposite side of the toilet paper roll (all bathrooms have this here). My only guess is that it's for the folks who like to be a little cleaner than toilet paper gets you. ;)

And speaking of waste composting would be a really good idea here if I had a place to put it after collection as there are no garbage disposals in the kitchens. I've even looked in some of the appliance stores just to see if they exist, but can't find any. So, I don't think it's just that our apartment doesn't have one, I don't think this invention has made it all the way to Abu Dhabi yet. Not such a bad thing except that the drains are pretty open here so they aren't catching a lot of the smaller food particles - here's hoping our plumbing is in good shape!

So how will they keep the flowers growing when the temps go well over 110? I think I may have mentioned this before, but there are water irrigation systems everywhere you see any plants or trees. Small rubber tubing lines every garden area and delivers water through a drip irrigation system. We have this on our patio and the water comes on twice a day for about 30 minutes to keep everything moist. Even so, half of our impatiens are dying out - not sure if it's the sand, not enough water, the sun ... or the few cats in the neighborhood using our patio as a litter box! :)

Today's final observation is around coffee. I've mentioned before that it's difficult to find plain brewed decaf even when it's listed on their menu, as I found out today at Caribou Coffee. In addition, there is no 1/2 & 1/2 at the little coffee station like you'd find back home - in fact, there is no milk of any kind. To get milk in your coffee, you have to order a latte or cappuccino or ask for a small cold milk on the side and then add it yourself. A little more trouble than ordering a decaf with cream like I would at Victor Allen's.

So that's it for today except to answer a couple of questions that have come up from folks about past posts. (Please send any questions or comments to - I'd love to hear from you and answer any questions you have from what you've read!!)

How much was the speeding ticket?
300 dirhams each, which is about $81 USD if you paid them right away. If you wait, they double in price!

Do the speeding tickets affect your insurance rates like back home?
Not that we can tell, although we won't be sure on this one until we renew our insurance next year. Our insurance rate is actually a percentage of the cost of the car and the percentage is based on the class of car. For example, our car was something like 5% of our purchase price, but had we bought a newer model with a sports package, the percentage would have been higher. This leads us to think that your driving record has no bearing on your insurance costs, but time will tell.

Oh, and don't think this means you can drive like a crazy person and only get fined. They also have black points - like our system, but you "earn" points for bad behavior and after you accumulate a certain number your license is revoked. A few weeks ago, we heard about a man in Dubai who had received 150 driving citations in a 2 month period! His license was revoked FOR LIFE and his car was impounded. This man can never again drive legally in UAE ... EVER. Serves him right, I say!!