Tuesday, 5 December 2006

It's raining!

Another long weekend over, this time thanks to UAE National Day. It was Dubai Rugby 7s weekend, which I think must be the highlight of the expat year here. Sad result for me as the Kiwis went down to the Saffas in the final, the receptionist at work is from Durban and was very quick to rub it in this morning. The first day was fantastic though I never thought I would ever be sitting at a rugby game singing along to Neil Diamond songs (Sweet Caroline, dom, dom, dom....) with thousands of other people. "Hey Baby", the new disco version, is one of the tournament anthems but I reckon the La De Dahs still have the best version - "Hhhheeeelllooo" (Kiwis of a certain age will get the joke.) One of the Canadian rugby players has the best names ever, wait for it, Dave Moonlight! DAVE MOONLIGHT! Isn't that brilliant? (Sabine, I sat with Hisham and Talal in the Morgan Stanley VIP area for a while, God life’s tough.)

On Saturday, the second day of the tournament it rained and to my shock it was 24 hours of real Auckland/Sydney style rain. The drains couldn't handle the volume of water, many roads flooded, and it was cold too! The rain turned the pitch and nearly everywhere else into a mudbath and we decided to give the rugby a miss which was a good decision as the rain didn't let up for the entire day. If I’d gone out to the ground I would have needed my Drizabone and a pair of Skellegators. On Saturday everyone got soaked no matter where they were in Dubai, as nobody here has wet weather gear, I mean why would you? The only reason I own an umbrella is to keep the sun off.

I don’t have pay tv so I decided to get a free-to-air set top box which looks like a Foxtel box but picks up all the free tv stations in the region. The box costs approx $AUD80 and I now have 250 channels including channels from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan; a channel called Huda which has 24 hour Koranic readings and lectures in English from some very interesting Koranic scholars (I think its funded by Saudi); there’s Hezbollah tv (non stop black and white footage of guys firing rocket launchers etc); an Arabic direct sales channel (ab machines, cellulite cream etc), the Turkmen channel (as in Turkmenistan, not a channel specifically for blokes from Turkey), a music channel from Sudan; my favourite Egyptian classic movies in black and white; lots of music channels including one that’s exclusively khaleegi music and dance (bliss) and most importantly, to me anyway, BBC World and Al Jazeera English.

Went to the Kiwi Ball at the Grand Hyatt last night and had a great time with about 500 other Kiwis, the occasional Aussie and some other assorted ring-ins. The 7s team was there and they did a haka. Richie McCaw was there too. There were several big video screens on the walls around the ballroom and during dinner they played a video of music/tv clips from the past, including the Toyota “Bugger” ad and Crumpy’s ad for utes. When the theme from “Country Calendar” played, the crowd almost broke into spontaneous applause. Split Enz were on the video from back the days when they wore the white face make up and within seconds all the Aucklanders on our table were reminiscing about the Buck-a-Head concerts at the Mercury Theatre. One guy’s claim to fame was that he played pool with the guys from Hello Sailor. Ah memories.

No more long weekends now until Christmas. We get Christmas Day and Boxing Day off but then because of Eid we have all the following week off.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Fast cars and live music - this must be heaven!

We went to Bahrain for the Desert Challenge round of the V8 supercars, something I've been looking forward to for weeks. The V8s had a round in Shanghai last year and this year was the first foray into the Middle East. For non-petrolheads the Supercars are the Holdens and Fords that race in Australia, for some readers I guess I should explain that Holdens and Fords are different makes of car.
Flew Air Arabia to Bahrain leaving from Sharjah Airport. Sharjah is about a half hour drive from Dubai, driving there is like going from one suburb into another as there are no borders or anything like that but it's another emirate with its own laws and head of state. Air Arabia is like Virgin Blue or Freedom Air in that its cut price and if you want any food or drink during the flight you pay for cash for it. We arrived in Bahrain only a bit behind time and immediately had our first experience with Bahraini taxi drivers who are world class ripoff artists from what I saw. Meter? What's that? You have to agree a price before starting out, heaven help you if you don't. But even the agreed prices were daylight robbery. Soirse, I'm sure you're nodding your head here.
The races were held at the same track as the Formula 1 earlier in the year. Apparently over $200 million was spent on the track and the facilities and it looks fantastic. There are lots of stands for spectators and the facilities for the teams look good too. We were able to get into the Team Kiwi Racing workshop and wander around thanks to the nice mechanic from Timaru who invited us in. There was one V8 race on Friday along with a full support programme. On Saturday there were two V8 races and again a full programme of supporting races including a race for less experienced drivers using identical V8 Luminas (Commodores). During the major races the Big Boys certainly weren't holding back at all and there were plenty of prangs and near misses to keep the spectators happy. The noise when the cars rev up just before the start is deafening........and wonderful. If they ever put it on a CD, I'll buy a copy! I phoned my brother in the UK and held my mobile out through the safety fence so he could hear that full throated roar (ok it's genetic!) There were a couple of guys dressed as kangaroos bouncing round the place too. We were able to walk down pit lane just before the final race which was great. There was a heritage tent with musicians in traditional dress playing Arabic music most of the time. V8s, live Arabic music, there was coffee and a place where you could smoke shisha, so it was just about my idea of heaven!
I haven't seen rain since I left Sydney so it was a bit odd to wake on Sunday morning to find a storm raging with thunder, lightning and rain bucketing down. Sunday morning was time for a bit of culture and after a further battle of wits with a taxi driver we went to the Bahrain National Museum. What a fantastic place, lots of interesting well laid out displays and tableaus and we ended up spending a lot longer there than originally planned. Dancers will be interested to know that there was a big section devoted to thobes, their different styles and purposes. We flew back to Sharjah at 6pm on Sunday evening and with a tail wind it only took 45 minutes. I was frisked on my way out of Bahrain by a female security dudette the size of Viscera, then in Sharjah I was picked out of the passport line to have retina (that's eyes folks) scanning done - just me and an assortment of very seedy looking gents from the sub continent and certain Eastern European countries (I was only wearing one contact lens so I gave them that eye haha!!). As we were leaving the airport I was asked to stop to have my bag checked a-bloody-gain! I had lost all sense of proportion and humour by that stage and as they yelled "Madam, Madam come here" at me I just walked out of the terminal. To hell with it I thought, if you want me, come and #*^`ing get me (but they didn't).
Today I picked up an application form for a liquor licence, in Dubai you need a licence to even have alcohol at home. Technically, the police could come to any expat's home to search for alcohol. If the expat doesn't have a current alcohol licence it could be quite serious if the authorities chose to make it so. You are given an allowance on your licence of how much you can spend. The amount of alcohol you can buy is worked out on a proportion of your salary or something like that. The cupboard under my kitchen sink is almost full of cans of VB and in another small cupboard behind piles of CDs and half used packets of shisha tobacco lives my collection of champagne - all purchased without a licence from the "hole in the wall". I've drunk more champers and eaten more dates in the last 3 months than I've done in my entire life! There are also authorised places that sell alcohol, though the prices are higher than the holes in the wall. The closest 'legit' alcohol store to my place is next to the local supermarket. The entrance is through an unmarked door which is hidden behind an arch so nobody sees you go in and more importantly nobody sees you coming out with your purchases, all very furtive. Had a chat there today with a guy from Wanganui who'd also been to the Bahrain races.
It's another long weekend coming up as its UAE National Day. The Dubai Rugby 7s are on Fri/Sat and then the Kiwi Ball is on Sunday night at the Grand Hyatt.
That's it for the moment - a lot of the shops are full of Christmas trees, decorations and, aaaaggghhh, Christmas songs playing. I've been looking for Christmas cards with a Middle Eastern theme and all I can find is cards with snow, robins sitting on miseltoe and jolly St Nick; not appropriate somehow!

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Up in smoke

Ramadan is over and shock, horror I'm back to working 8:30 - 6. Bit of a shock after a month of working 9 - 3:30.

I bought a shisha (nargile/hookah) a couple of weeks ago and last night when I went to visit some friends I fired it up for the first time. I know some people find the thought of me being let loose with red hot coals and lengths of hose to be a frightening scenario but such is the way of the world hehehe! The Jordanian lawyer from work gave me lots of tips on the best way to set it up and also gave me his mobile number in case I needed to call him for instant advice during the evening. I managed it fine though. I learnt that the water level is important; not too much, not too little and keeping the charcoal hot all the time is crucial and I'm told that putting a couple of ice cubes in the water gives a smoother smoke. Since coming to Dubai I've become a big fan of shisha which is a bit odd I guess as usually I'm a rabid non-smoker. The tobacco used in shisha is soaked in fruit essence which gives it a distinctive taste and smell. I like apple, strawberry and grape/mango mix but there are all sorts of other flavours even a coca-cola mix which quite honestly sounds revolting.

My friend Ellie who works at King Faisal Hospital in Saudi Arabia was in Dubai last week in her role as co-ordinator of a major conference for neurosurgeons. She earns her money that girl! They held their black tie gala dinner at one of the big hotels here last Thursday night and I was lucky enough to be able to go along. Black tie meant 'long dress for ladies' and as all my good gear is in a storage unit in Chatswood, I had to go out Wednesday night and buy one (note the use of the word “had”). On the day of the dinner I completely forgot to order a taxi and by the time I needed to leave home the cab company wouldn’t take phone bookings so I had to stand out on the street in full evening dress to hail a passing cab. While I was waiting I had a number of interesting and potentially lucrative offers but not a single one that involved a ride to the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel. Once I got to the hotel though I had a fantastic night – thanks Ellie.

Sabina arrived here from Sydney the next day (Friday the first day of the Dubai weekend). Sabine and I were out at the airport at 5:35am to pick her up (tough work after the gala dinner the night before). It was just wonderful to see her and for the three of us to be together again. The last time we were together we were all far, far too committed to partaking in the Happy Hour at the Piano Bar at the Swissotel in Market Street and ended up demanding that the pianist play “Tulips from Amsterdam” while we sang along. Since that night, the staff smile at us although the pianist looks slightly terrified.

Back to the story, Sabina stopped off in Dubai on her way back to Bosnia to see her Mum who hasn’t been well. We went out to Madinat Jumeirah for breakfast (Donna, this is next to where we went for drinks when you were here) and in the evening we went down to the Creek and had dinner with Sabine and her husband Hisham. The next day Sabina and I went on the abra over to the gold souq where she bought some beautiful jewellery at ridiculously cheap prices by Australian standards. We crossed back to the Bur Dubai side of the Creek on the abra again. Abra touch parking means the driver slams the abra into the wharf a sufficient number of times until it stops long enough for the passengers to hurl themselves off the abra and onto the relative safety of the wharf. There’s a real art to this!

Sabine drove round to get us and we went to a restaurant that cooks Emirati food where we bought take aways including my favourite local food which is called Haries. Haries is made from mutton and wheat which is cooked to within an inch of its life and then mashed into a congealed mess that looks like………nothing good………..maybe a bit like cold porridge with suspicious lumps in it, but the taste is divine! We drove down to Hatta which is on the road to Oman and had a picnic. We walked round the Hatta Heritage Village which was very interesting and then drove back to Dubai (at less than 180kph – I wasn’t driving). In the evening Sabina and I met up with friends at the Irish Village. The IV is an outdoor pub where, early in my stay, I learnt why a person should avoid beer with bits of lemon in it served in glasses as big as buckets.

Sheik Mohamed the ruler of Dubai (known to all as Sheik Mo) has decreed that traffic safety is a major issue and that ‘recklessness’ is going to be stopped. Nooooo! Several truck drivers have already been deported for running red lights. The problem is that Dubai highways are made for speed. There are long stretches of straight, wide, empty highway here where a person can, sorry, “could”, this is all hypothetical, drive comfortably at 180+kph. What’s a lifelong hoon to do? The corners here curve gently, the camber is perfect and unlike NZ roads there are no nasty surprises like sharp corners that just appear out of nowhere or slight rises in the road that are followed by a 90 degree turn that you don’t see until its too late. You can do speeds here that you would never consider doing in NZ or Aus but of course the road toll reflects that and there are some terrible crashes involving the big trucks.

Well that's it for the moment. I'll get to work on getting some more photos on the web.

Take care everybody

PS -
James - I finally bought a CD by Killswitch Engage (The end of heartache) and I’m sitting here listening to Howard Jones doing inhuman things to his vocal chords. Most of it’s really good but other bits are so much like Sepultura that I’m waiting for someone to start screaming “Roots, bloody roots!”

Monday, 23 October 2006

End of Ramadan

Sorry I haven’t been in touch for a couple of weeks. I don't have a flash excuse as I hadn’t been kidnapped by a white slavery ring. If I had, we all know they’d be phoning the police after a couple of hours offering big money to hand me back. So in answer to the questions, I’m still alive, healthy and for the moment financially solvent.

Today could be the last day of Ramadan, it all depends on the gents on the Moon Committee announcing that the New Moon has been sighted but it could just as likely happen tomorrow night or Monday. Once the announcement is made everyone has a couple of days holiday though the government shuts down for a full week. Bakers has already told us that we can have Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off, it just gets too confusing otherwise. Most of the people in the office have taken the whole week off and a few are going overseas. One of the great things about Dubai is that it's so central for travelling. One girl has gone to Syria, one of the guys has gone to Jordan to visit his family then is heading to Petra and the Dead Sea, and another has headed to London for the week.

It really is a small world. One of the lawyers here at Bakers did 6 weeks on the Death Star as an intern.

Last week I went go-kart racing for the first time ever, it was so much fun though it took me a full lap to realise that the kart had brakes. Many would now hope that I'll eventually learn that big cars have brakes too.

I’ve been to a few iftars during Ramadan. The first was at a small Lebanese family style restaurant with great food, then another at the Mina Seyahi which had a huge A&P show size tent with smaller tents set up inside. Last week we went to the Shangri-La hotel which has iftar by the roof top pool (life’s so tough…) It was a gorgeous setting, a nice group of people, mezze and smoking shisha. If it was possible to eat, chat and smoke shisha on a professional basis I would take the job in a heartbeat! I had the bright idea that next Ramadan I could give up coffee for the month. I mentioned it to a few people but it seems that even though I may only have been here for 3 months, my addiction to the bean has already been noticed and my suggestion has been greeted with universal laughter and "as if"!

Life will return to normal once Ramadan is over. The coffee will flow freely and the place downstairs will again sell scones to the needy masses, ie, me!

Eid Mubarak!

Sunday, 24 September 2006

Ramadan begins

It’s the first day of Ramadan today. We got an email on Thursday evening to say that the firm is allowing all staff, Muslim and non-Muslim, to work 9:30am to 3:30pm each work day during Ramadan with no reduction in pay. Realistically I won’t be leaving early if my boss is still working though but if I have a few early marks during the month when I can go to the beach that’ll be nice. Ramadan Kareem Nadia!

What a grand and glorious game yesterday, though as usual the Swans made the red and white faithful suffer in the process. As I was out of Dubai I’d taken my laptop hoping that there’d be a wireless network I could get into so I could listen to the Triple M webcast. No luck unfortunately so I was phoning my kids every half hour - if I could wait a whole 30 minutes - for score updates. In the evening we went to watch the replay at Aussie Legends, a bar in Rydges Hotel. Of course nobody will be surprised to hear that I have my Swans scarf, hat and tee shirt with me (you'd be surprised if I didn't). The Grand Final will be on live at Legends at 9:30am Dubai time on Saturday morning and then, depending on the result, I’ll spend the rest of the day being unbearably happy watching the replays, or unbearably depressed, despondent and possibly drinking gin.

I was at the Hatta Hotel while the game was on. Hatta is near the Omani border and Colin had taken me down there so I could do what’s known here as a visa run. Until I have Dubai residency I use 30 day or 60 day visitor visas which means that, like a huge number of other temporary residents in Dubai, I have to leave the country when the current visa is close to expiry and then re-enter to get a new visa. To do the visa run many people drive or fly to Oman, others fly to Qatar and Colin’s flatmates fly to a small island off the coast of Iran. My most recent visa says quite clearly in English “Valid for 30 days from date of issue” which meant we had to do the run this weekend as the 30 days expired on 25 Sept.

The Omani border is about 2 hours drive from Dubai. We drove down Friday morning and went through the procedure of exiting the UAE through their border post which looks like a handful of portacabins that have been thrown onto the side of the road. The UAE immigration man said to Colin that my visa is actually for 60 days. Yes, it was my passport but the immigration guy didn’t speak to me directly or even acknowledge me at any stage. This would have really pissed me off when I was younger, but now it doesn’t faze me at all, in fact I can see the funny side of it. Colin pointed out that the stamp says in English quite clearly “30 days”. The immigration guy laughed and said that some border offices hadn’t been issued with the “60 day” stamp so they just kept using the “30 day” stamp instead. Apparently the visa says “60 days” in Arabic which is good if you read Arabic, but I know this how?

Anyway we’d got this far so we carried on and drove through the no-mans land (no-person’s land surely) to the Omani border post which is completely different to the UAE post. The Omani border post looks like a palace, all cool marble, manicured lawns and landscaped gardens. Once inside, I had to stand in a queue to get the immigration form that needs to be completed. Why you have to queue to get a blank form is a total mystery to me. You fill in the form and then join another queue where you’re issued with the actual visa and your passport is stamped. Everyone in front of me in the ‘collect the form’ queue was having issues with the immigration man behind the counter. Yikes, my turn. I step up, hand him my passport and he gives me one of those looks that makes you think “Jeez, how does he know about that?”(insert darkest secret) and he says “Ah New Zeeleendee” and he doesn’t give me the form. Yikes again. Instead, he reaches over to the visa issuing guy’s desk, takes the guy's stamp, issues my visa and stamps my passport. No paperwork, nothing. Ooookaaay!!

The next step was to get the Omani exit stamp in my passport. As Colin has UAE residency he doesn't need to enter/exit Oman so he was waiting in the car park ready to post bail if I wasn’t back in an hour. I headed out the back door of the passport palace and round the corner. As there is no provision for people to exit Oman on foot, well not legally anyway, I had to stand in the queue of cars waiting to exit Oman and re-enter the UAE. Look at me, I’m a car! The immigration guy who rules the car queue stamps my passport and he also gives me a form in Arabic that says who-knows-what. I jump back into the car and we drive back up to the UAE border where they refuse to let us re-enter because the form the car queue guy gave me isn’t exit authority for two-people-and-a-car it’s just for one person (me). So we drive back to Oman, I jog into the passport palace past the people in the queues who look at me curiously, exit out the back door, and again I’m standing in the queue with the cars - I wish I had a photo. I then had to explain to the car queue man that while he may see one woman standing in front of him I am in fact two-people-and-a-car! Strange, but in this part of the world it all seems so logical. Unfortunately he starts making phone calls and giving me suspicious looks and I have to make the painful confession that at this point, for the first time in my life, I resorted to Every Girl’s Final Fall Back Position. I took off my sunglasses, batted my eyelashes and tossed the blonde hair while giggling and saying words to the effect of “Oh dear I don’t know what to do, you big handsome immigration man, I’m just a helpless little lady…….” Oh my God! It works! I can’t believe it – that routine is bloody magic, why have I never used it before? The end result is that he gives me a huge smile and the form that clearly states that I’m two-people-and-a-car. Let’s hear it for flexible feminist principles! I’m glad to say we got back through the UAE border without any problems, then had a lovely bbq lunch at the Hatta Fort hotel and a swim before returning to Dubai.

My residency application still hasn’t started because I’ve had to have my NZ UE certificate notarised in NZ and then authorised by both NZ Internal Affairs and External Affairs. The certificate is in the post to me now thanks to Raewyn. When it arrives here I take it to the NZ Embassy who then authorise the Internal and External Affairs signatures then it goes to the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs for something else and then it finally comes to my employer to start the application process. There’s a charge for each signature of course. All this for a 30 year old certificate that shows that in 1971 amongst other things, I could draw a crash hot diagram of the Waipa River (UE Geography) and write a boring précis on the Unification of Yugoslavia a topic which is now of course totally redundant. Ah well, it’ll all work out in the end I guess, insha’allah.

Go Swannies!!

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Work is the curse of the drinking class

The office working hours here are 8:30am to 6pm though the shops are open to around 10:30-11pm every night even later on Thursday nights. I may be getting used to working Sunday-Thursday, as I rang the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney on Sunday and was annoyed that nobody answered – yes I know, it’s often hard to get them to answer when you ring Mon-Fri anyway.

As several of us have discussed, the reigning Premiers, those stars of the SCG, God’s Own Team, the Sydney Swans, play the Dockers this weekend. I’ll be sitting in the office listening to the broadcast on Triple M on the net. I doubt whether I can resist yelling at the screen at times of stress and if Goldspink is umpiring then all bets are off!

Ramadan is expected to start on either Friday or Saturday of next week, it all depends on the sighting of the moon. During the 40 days of Ramadan Muslim people fast during the hours of daylight then there are evening prayers and the fast is broken by a meal called iftar. Iftar is quite a social thing and there are iftar tents set up at all the hotels, families get together and companies hold special iftar functions for clients. For expats Ramadan means no alcohol is available at all, even through the holes in the wall. Many people do a pre-Ramadan stock up (it’s a trip down to the Barracuda resort in Um al Quain which is one of the other Emirates. It's the best bottle shop this side of Naremburn). During Ramadan there is no eating or drinking in public, many restaurants are either shut for the month or have their windows covered, food courts in the shopping malls are shut, the bottle of water you’d usually have on your desk has to be put away and if you want to have a drink, you go to the toilets and drink it there. I’m lucky because I can go home for lunch as my place is only a 5 minute walk away from work. The government has put out a decree that this year all employees whether Muslim or not, must work ‘Ramadan hours’ which means 6 hours a day without reduction in pay. (I’m all for this of course).

The company I’m working for is in an office tower attached to the Bur Juman shopping mall. Bur Juman is very upmarket with only the most exclusive labels being sold. How utterly pathetic when someone like me does a lunch hour mooch round the shops and thinks “I’m bored with Dior, OMG, do I have to look at Christian LaCroix again, and why hasn’t Versace changed their window display?” Ker-thunk!! That’s the sound of people on both sides of the Tasman fainting in shock that the woman who thought high fashion was having two pairs of gumboots now not only knows the designers’ names but can spell them too.

And finally, my nomination for the worst “call waiting” music ever, courtesy of a certain Dubai banking institution: “Eye of the Tiger” played on the Pan’s pipes. Truly ghastly.

Take care all, Go Swannies!

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Salalah: Omanis in the Mist

On our second day in Salalah we went out to Muqsayl on the coast where there are lots of blowholes. Very spectacular and with the rough seas and big surf it was very much like Bethells (my home beach in NZ). The fog was very thick which made driving quite difficult at times and isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of drivers only use their hazard lights, if they use lights at all, and they certainly don’t bother slowing down. As well, there are the camels and goats which wander the roads. Drivers have to stop for camels and to hit one causes really serious problems and the payment to the owner of lots of cash in compensation.

We then drove along the Sarfait Road which continues from Mugsayl to the Yemen border. The road winds and twists up a 1000m cliff to a plateau, spectacular views, well, what we could see through the fog. I was doing some of the driving and Sabine was very calm only yelling out “Cliff, Cliff” as in “You’re too close to it…..” a couple of times. The Lonely Planet guide says the border crossing at this point “is not for the faint- hearted” and I can add to that, nor is the drive to get there!

One thing I’ve learnt is that Omanis are the world champion picnickers, they will picnic anywhere, any time, there is no terrain too rough, no slope too steep, no fog too thick to stop any self respecting Omani from having a picnic. The Omani motto should be “Picnics-R-Us”.

We’ve also had a drive on the anti-gravity road. This is 200m section of an unsealed track off the road between Salalah and Tarqa. You go down the hill, put the car in neutral, release the brakes and the car starts going backwards uphill. It’s true, despite certain people who read these emails, you know who you are, saying that there is no scientific proof, it’s an optical illusion etc etc. It’s weird but it’s for real.

Day 2 photos: http://www.geocities.com/aziza_au/Salalah_photos2.htm

On our final full day we battled the low cloud to go out to Job’s Tomb (Nabi Ayub). Though the tomb is small, it has a powerful atmosphere. I don’t know if it really is Job buried there but whoever it is, they have strong vibes. Apparently there are great views from the tomb but, as you’ll see from the photos, the cloud was so low we couldn’t see anything. We continued on the same road up to a plateau where the air was hot and dry and it was all desert again. We stopped for coffee at a small town called Thumrayt. The restaurant had a ‘family area’ which is where families (obviously) or ladies travelling together can sit in privacy in individual curtained off areas. We sat in our little secluded area and drank coffee made with sweetened condensed milk had then had sugar added to it. I’m looking forward to a cup of coffee that doesn’t carry with it the risk of developing instant diabetes.

On the plane from Salalah to Dubai I sat in an aisle seat and there was a lady wearing full purda in the window seat. She was very concerned that a man was going to be in the vacant middle seat next to her so I moved over and sat next to her to ‘protect’ her from the man who then took the aisle seat.

Day 3 photos: http://www.geocities.com/aziza_au/Salalah_photos3.htm

Saturday, 19 August 2006

Salalah, Oman

Our flight from Dubai to Salalah in Oman (down by the border with Yemen) was uneventful though there were several layers of cloud to pass through on the descent into Salalah which made for a bumpy ride and the pilot hit the runway at quite a speed, you could say the ground broke our fall.

During the khareef (rainy) season in July-Sept, Salalah is affected by the monsoon season and as a result has clear air, a slightly lower temperature and lots of greenery, a very welcome change after the heat and dust of Dubai. The hotel we’re staying at is brand new and right by the beach. As part of the Khareef Festival a large shopping/funfair/outdoor restaurant area is open right next door and on our first night we went over for a look. Sydney people, there are bananas galore here with roadside stalls that sell nothing but bananas…and they don’t cost $10 a kilo…you could buy the whole stall for $10!! It became very obvious, very quickly that Salalah is a conservative area. It’s no exaggeration to say that 90% of the ladies here wear the burqa (face covering) but don’t get the idea these ladies are oppressed or meek. We seem to be the only CWPs (Crazy White People) in town, everywhere we go people turn and look. Salalah has built up its tourism industry but it is aimed at tourists coming from the Gulf and Saudi not Western tourists. There are few maps or road signs in English and by the time Sabine and I use our combined Arabic skills to decipher an Arabic road sign we are 20kms down the road. We’ve hired a Toyota Landcruiser (manual, left hand drive) for the time we’re here. I’ve driven the Landcruiser a couple of times and each time I’ve reached down with my left hand to ‘change gears’, hit my hand on the door and thought “My God, where’s the gear lever?” but I’m getting the idea now.

On our first day we went to Taqa Fort then further along the coast to the small town of Mirbat. Mirbat, which is a rundown town to put it mildly, has a small fort (which was closed) and was the site of an important battle during the Dhofari insurgency in the 1970s. We bought some rolls and cheese and sat on the breakwater to eat them while looking out at the Arabian Sea. We then visited Bin Ali’s tomb on the outskirts of Mirbat. We drove on to Wadi Darbat which was absolute paradise. During the khareef the Wadi looks like a picture book, verdant greenery, lakes, small waterfalls, birds, vines creeping up the trunks of the trees. Lots of people were there picnicking and flying kites (kite flying seems to be a very popular pastime here). Yet just a few miles up the road (and I do mean up….) the plateau is dry, rocky and sandy.

Picture the scene, I’m getting ready to take a photo of a “beware of the camel” road sign which happened to have some real camels in the background. I was waiting for the camels to get themselves organised when a car pulled over from the across the road and blocked my shot. Then, a bloke sticks his head out of the car window and delivers the most incredible pick up line ever delivered – here we are in the back blocks of Oman and the guy cheerfully announces “I know you two, you’ve just come back from Lebanon!” “Um, no, not us.” Brilliant smile from the guy, he gets the vibes that he has struck out with his spiel and with a cheery “masalema” he waves, winds up his window and drives off. The total absurdity of the situation hit us, Sabine and I laughed so hard we were crying and were both hit with fits of the giggles throughout the remainder of the day. “I know you two, you’ve just come back from Lebanon” it’s a classic isn’t it, put it on my headstone.

You can see some photos at: http://www.geocities.com/aziza_au/Salalah_photos1.htm

Interesting aside: You can buy Hassan Nasrala pillowcases here. (He’s the leader of Hezbollah.)

Thursday, 17 August 2006

My life flashes past me...........

Thanks for all the emails, it’s really good to read them and keep up with what’s happening.

On Sunday I went out to the mosque at Jumeirah which is the only mosque in Dubai that allows entry to non-Muslims. The tours are on Tuesday and Sunday mornings and the guide is usually an English speaking convert who encourages questions of all types which makes for a very interesting session. Ladies and gents need to dress modestly, long sleeves and long trousers for both sexes (though ladies can wear long skirts) and ladies must wear a head scarf.

Yesterday I went out to Ibn Battuta Mall which is the biggest mall I’ve been to. It’s named after a famous 14th century Arabic explorer. The mall is a kilometre long from one end to the other and divided into ‘courts’ which have different themes – China, India, Egypt, Tunisia and another couple that I forget. To say it’s huge is an understatement, the China court has a full size junk in the middle and there’s still masses of room to spare both in height and width. Lots of familiar names; Athletes Foot, Billabong, The Body Shop etc and the big UK chains, Debenhams and BHS. Woolworths is here too but it sells clothes only which is different to both Aus and NZ. In each court there are also static displays about Ibn Battuta, his travels, literature, development of Islam, science etc in the 14th century which are really interesting. Shopping hours are 10-10 Sat-Tue and 10-midnight Wed-Fri. Photos of the mall are at http://www.geocities.com/aziza_au/Photos_3.htm

Have I become some sort of international traffic *&#%wit magnet? Why won’t the cars leave me alone? On Monday night I went out to Al Basha and the return taxi trip provided me with yet another close encounter with death. Dubai people to give you the picture, the trip was made even longer by an accident on Sheikh Zayed Rd so we had to go the back way on the road with the signs saying ‘Oman 120kms’. Anyway Markesh Skaif (oh very clever) was at the wheel and obviously full of the thrill of it being Pakistan's independence day. At no time during the entire 40 minute trip did the speed drop below 120kph, he did more weaving than a carpet factory and finally, having almost passed the Bur Dubai turnoff, without dropping a kilometre in speed he crossed 3 lanes, went over the striped lines just before the concrete lane divider and missed the crash barrier by inches. It was at this point I felt the bony fingers of the Reaper gripping my shoulder and that was because the Grim Reaper was as scared as me! No human has ever exited a taxi as fast as I did that night.

Here’s something to think about. In a recent discussion fuelled by cans of unlicensed VB (thanks Colin) this topic was raised: can we tell anything about the psyche of a nation by the lyrics of its pop songs? What sort of nation can have a song with the lyrics “I’m lost at sea and I’m an amputee and there was slaughter in the water when I bought a shaaaark attack” and regard it as a cheerful dance floor ditty? There was huge amusement over whether Britney Spears has a subliminal message (well, umm, like, d’uh) and what is the cultural relevance of the Pussycat Dolls, compare and contrast. The topic fool, not the girls. And how come there’s 6 PCDs in some videos and 8 in others. Are they being cloned? The quality of debate went downhill from there a bit.

Most shops seem to have local radio playing over the speakers. Quite a few of the radio DJs are English (one sounds just like John Peel) and there is a strong UK influence in the music played on the radio and available in the music shops. It’s a bit surreal to be in the ghee section of an Indian supermarket while the Violent Femmes are playing over the speakers, but wait there’s more……isn’t there always…. in a coffee bar in the Mall of the Emirates they were playing Wolfmother, and I walked into the shoe shop at the Al Ain shopping centre and all the boy shop assistants were standing round singing along to “I’m a freak, I’m a weirdo…………” Who is that girl who sings “I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair”? Hasn’t anyone told her that if you wore flowers in your hair, you’d be beaten to a bloody pulp by the punk rockers?

Where are the weird business names, I’ve been asked? OK, here’s a couple for you: Who in their right mind would name a car rental company “Travel and Walk Rent a Car” (it’s in Karama) and how about the mattress shop called “JoySleep”. I thought you could have one or the other…..hehehe….oh control yourselves.

The place I’m staying is nice and I’m so happy to have a gym in the building (collective rolling of eyes). There is a reception desk downstairs usually staffed by a couple in their late 20s. I call them “Mum and Dad” because they glare at me if I dare to go out in the sleeveless top….I can hear them thinking in Tagalog/Hindi “You’re not going out dressed like that are you?” I only dress in such a racy fashion if I’m going out at night and I wear a pashmina over the top while I’m out in public.

I thought I heard a rubbish truck one night which seemed an odd thing to dream about even for me. When I asked “Mum and Dad” about it they told me the trucks come round to empty the skips that are on the sides of every street. There’s no rubbish pick up for individual houses here, instead there are the skips that everyone puts their rubbish into (yes, yes I know, it should be “into which everyone puts their rubbish”.) After a couple of days in the heat, even though the skip has a lid, the smell from some of them can be lethal, like WMD lethal, adults hold their breath when they walk past and little kids run past and make gagging noises.

On Friday Sabine and I head off to Salalah in Oman. We’ve hired a 4x4 for the 3 days we’re there, lots to see, Job’s Tomb, the frankincense trail, the magnetic road, the beach, looking forward to it. Sabine’s talked me into doing some driving while we’re down there: unsealed roads, blind corners, cars on the wrong side, ah, it’ll be just like Waitakere…………..

Ma’a salema

Friday, 11 August 2006

Sunshine, lollipops etc

Yesterday I went to the Diving Museum and the Heritage Museum which are next to each other near the Creek. Both were ‘open but closed’ - the facilities were open but as it is high summer there aren’t many tourists around so not many of the actual exhibits were open. Still I got some good photos which I’ve put up on the web and hopefully you’ve seen now, despite my HTML hiccup. The photos should be there in the correct size and order now.

I’ve bought myself an umbrella to try to keep off the worst of the sun. I know that sounds terribly ponsy but the sun here is so fierce that I need something more effective than standing in the shadow of telephone poles and slapping on buckets of 35+ sun cream. I’ve now got the whole tea-plantation-memsahib look happening, but it does the job.

I’ve promised myself that on at least one as yet unspecified day, I will not spend any money. Today is not the day as I have discovered a true wonder – the 2 Dirham Shop (that’s about 74c Aus). They’ve got the most extensive range of craptastic products one could ever hope to find. Things like: shampoo in bottles that look exactly like Free & Lovely but it’s called “Heal and Smoothing”; anything plastic that you could ever want, need or have wondered if it existed; perfume that’s “supposed” to be Chanel but smells like it’s made from the contents of Bopal’s sewers; leis and plastic flowers of every size imaginable and my favourite, snow globes of Dubai, and that’s just for starters. I was assured that there is “More stock coming in daily Madame”. The mind boggles!

Angelina – The shoes here! OMG! It’s like Shoe Queen Heaven. Even I’m finding them irresistible.
Terry – A 2 year old Chevy Lumina SS sold here for 70,000Dhm, yes dirhams! Want to go halves on one? You could have it on weekends hahahahaha……

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Peel me a grape, no, make that a date.

Life’s almost too good to be true sometimes. I spent yesterday afternoon sitting on the couch with my feet up, Led Zep CDs playing, eating dates, wearing my official UAE ‘ladies indoor dress’ called a galabeya (think executive mumu but without the pictures of coconut trees and surfboards) and reading the latest Sarah Paretsky murder mystery. Yes, gasp, fiction, it’s a shock to me too. There can be few finer ways to waste an afternoon.

I’m at the gym at 9am every morning, there’s nobody around except the pool attendant who does double duty as the gym fitness instructor. The most I’ve seen him do is adjust the air-con and now that I know where he hides the remote he doesn’t even need to do that. He’s amazed to see anyone in the gym before noon and often waits to hand me a towel before I go in. As he hands me the towel he always gives me a huge smile and there’s a brief conversation along the lines of (“words to the effect of….”):
“Good morning Madam” (You crazy white person)
“Good morning Hassan” (Yeah, but a fit, crazy white person)

Today was, as they say, “fully hectic”. After the gym I walked down to the Creek and caught the abra that goes down to the area where the dhows are loaded further down the Creek from the souq. These dhows are freight boats which sail mainly between the UAE and India, the design which is very Sinbadish, probably hasn’t changed in centuries except for the addition of engines. The freight is delivered to the wharf in trucks and then moved onto the dhows on the backs of crews of Indian labourers. It’s strange to walk along and pass towers of toasters or microwaves stacked up on the wharf. I walked through the spice souq and then sort of got lost, Dubai people will be amazed particularly as I was supposed to be walking in a straight line, but I’ve always warned everyone that I have absolutely no sense of direction. Anyway it was worth it as I found the Dubai public library with their wonderful air-conditioned reading room. I was very pleasantly surprised to see they had the latest edition of Foreign Affairs so I plonked myself down at an empty table to read it. The whole ‘ladies only’ thing then happened, quite a few blokes came in but they wouldn’t sit with me so by the time I left there were about 15 of them jammed around a table made for 6 while I had my own table. That’s the way it works here, a lady, even a Crazy White Person lady should not have her privacy disturbed by unknown males. I finished reading a really good article about the development of relations between Iran and Iraq and then headed out into the heat, it must have been about 1000 degrees, to find the Heritage House and Al Ahmadiya School. And find them I did, eventually. The house has been beautifully restored to show how a wealthy family would have lived in it in the early days. The school is next door to the Heritage House. It was established in 1922 making it one of the first semi-formal schools in Dubai. Formal education in Dubai began in 1956. At the school they show a very interesting video about how during the restoration of the building they had to go back to the old ways of doing things to ensure authenticity. What you can do with ground up coral and gypsum is quite surprising. Like the Heritage House, the school is beautifully presented. I had both places completely to myself which seems a shame as they are both well worth seeing. I took an abra back to the Bur Dubai side. The abra ride costs 50fils which is about 18 cents and has got to be the best value travel buy ever. From there a taxi out to the City Centre mall to do some grocery shopping and then home to do more lying on the couch reading.

The owners of the unsecured wireless network that I’ve been using seem to be on to me and I’m having trouble logging in. I write the emails and move them to the out box. I leave Outlook open all the time when I’m home and if the network pops up, I race over to the laptop and press “Send”. The network was off the air all day yesterday so I had to pay actual money at an internet café, all of $12 for 3 hours.

Questions have been asked and, yes, I do know what make of car hit me at the pedestrian crossing, I just chose not to mention it, ok? Why? Because adding to the whole negative experience of being hit by a car, is the fact that I was hit by a bloody Nissan Sunny. How humiliating. Let us never speak of it again.

Friends on 3 continents who’ve had to put up with me whinging about not seeing the end of The Dirty Dozen will be glad to hear that I’ve bought a cheap copy on DVD and have now seen it through to the end (most of them die).

Saturday, 5 August 2006

Desert Ramblings

A breeze has arrived in Dubai and the dust clouds have finally moved on so the air is a bit clearer now. The temperature is around 40 degrees every day and you only need to run the cold tap when you have a shower as the water from the cold tap comes out warm.
It seems that the days of Dubai being a great shopping destination are gone. . I haven't done the trip out to Karama to look at the knockoff bags yet but I'm told the prices have rocketed since last year. A cup of coffee costs around $3.50AUD and prices in the supermarkets are pretty close to what I'd pay in Aus. Rents are nearly equivalent to Sydney prices too. I did get a good deal on my new camera though. With Jess on the mobile giving instructions I got a Canon A530 with 512 thingies of memory for $308AUD. They threw in the memory card for free because I was a "nice lady". Thank you, I can hear the laughter from here.
On Saturday Sabine and I went to the "Beauty Saloon" (yes that's the way it's spelt) through the doors which are closely watched by the beauticians to ensure that no man should darken the doors of the inner sanctum, perish the thought. The local ladies come in, take off their burqas (face coverings) and hang them up with their abayas. After that it could be any hairdresser in Aus or NZ.
We went to the party at the Mina Seyahi on Saturday night, very nice, free champagne, free food, free champagne, oh sorry did I say that already?
I went for a mooch around the computer area yesterday (Peter you'd be in heaven there). At one shop which gloried in the name of "Moist Flower Electronics"...hehehe oh control yourselves.I was offered a great deal on a 'Lompaq' computer, yes Lompaq, which I turned down.
I've moved into my temporary apartment which is just around the corner from S&H. It has a mosque across the road so it's "just like home". It's a nice little place with everything I need except a damn phone connection for the laptop, the bloody thing is wired directly into the wall. All technical suggestions gratefully received. I have to confess that I've been using any unsecured wireless network I can get into to send my emails so far.
Thank God there's a gym in the building and now that I've figured out the vagaries of the "Fitness Art 6910 treadmill with Personal Cardio Advisor" with its operating instructions in Hindi I am a happy camper. All the instructions for the washing machine in my apartment are in Spanish so there's a theme here.
Everyone seems to smoke here. They're puffing away on the streets, in the malls, in the bars, even in restaurants, not the local ladies though, well certainly not in public. It's like a return to the bad old days in NZ and Aus. I even found a half empty packet of Marlboro Lites hidden at the back of the top shelf in the wardrobe. On the topic of smoking and in an exercise in double standards I intend to buy a sheesha/nagile so I can sit on my balcony in the cool of the evening (that's when the temperature plummets to 35 degrees) to have a puff on some fine apple tobacco. Hisham is going to show me how to operate the sheesha, I know it involves hot water, lengths of hose and red hot coals, things most right thinking people would not normally allow me anywhere near.

Friday, 4 August 2006

It's a long way to the shops.............

I woke up this morning and realised that I don’t know what day of the week it is! Some cruel people would say that’s #%*ing typical, but what it *really*means is that I’m finally in holiday mode.

I went with Sabine and Jenny down to the Gold Souq the night before last. Life runs to a different clock here, you go out late, stay out late and start later in the morning, shops open at 10am. Everyone who works in an office has regular office hours which can be a pain for them and is the reason we shouldn’t go out and drink lots of champagne on a “school night”!! I must be getting into the groove as it’s 9pm and I’m just starting to cook dinner. Anyway back to the souq, we went out at 8:45pm and took the abra across the Creek. The first thing you notice at the souq is the gorgeous smell from the Spice Souq, every sort of spice you could want is there and more. The gold souq is mind boggling with breathtaking displays in all the shop windows, Indian dowry jewellery is particularly spectacular. The price of gold went up a couple of weeks ago apparently so it was a bit quieter in the souq than usual as the big buyers are holding off. We were also looking for a new abaya for me. By the time we’d visited the jeweller, and wandered around the dress shops it was 11:15pm and the shops were only just starting to close down. This place doesn’t sleep. We sat in the dark and watched the world go by as the abra puttered back to the Bur Dubai side where the car was parked; the warm breeze, the exotic sounds, yep it doesn’t get much better than that! (There’s also the strong smell of gasoline from the abra engine but that spoils the picture.)

Driving in Dubai is absolutely mad and most of the time just plain frightening. The city cannot cope with the sheer number of cars, it seems there are road works going on everywhere plus they are digging big tunnels for the new metro railway. This results in constant traffic jams and means that a trip which should take 10 minutes can often take an hour or more. Driving in the opposite lane into oncoming traffic appears to be an optional extra, there are Indian guys riding pushbikes without helmets, lights or common sense and all this is happening while everyone, to my mind, is driving on the ‘wrong’ side. Life isn’t a picnic for those on foot either. I was warned after I arrived that nobody is safe even on pedestrian crossings and yesterday afternoon I found out how true that is. I was with other people waiting to cross at the slip lane at the lights outside Spinneys (on Al Mankhool Rd opposite the Khaleej Centre for Dubai people). The cars stopped, we all started crossing and suddenly for no obvious reason the front car started to drive off, he missed the guy in front of me by centimetres but hit me. I was about level with the driver’s side headlight and I went up and over the driver’s side bumper. And what did the driver do? He sat and looked down at me as I got up off the road and then gave me a cheery “sorry” wave and drove off. If there really is reincarnation then I wish him all sorts of very special surprises when he gets to his next life. I’m fine though Alhamdul'allah. A half hour run this morning on the trusty Fitness Art 6910 treadmill got rid of any residual aches. We’re tough us Aucklanders. (South Island people can keep their derision to themselves).

The novelty of the non stop Arabic music channel hasn’t worn off yet, lots of clips have dancers in them and many of the singers are pretty good dancers themselves. One clip features a gorgeous female singer with a debke troupe - which is understandable - but then rather oddly there’s also a large flock of ducks in the video and the ducks get plenty of camera time. Maybe if I understood the lyrics the duck situation would be explained but I have my doubts. Thanks to the music channel I’ve ‘discovered’ Mostafa Kamal (the man has weird pointy teeth but does great music). Ahmad Adaweya has come out of retirement to release a couple of very potent songs commenting on the situation in the Middle East. These are shown regularly on the music channel. Mr A has had some serious plastic surgery but the Voice of Baladi is as good as ever. Sabah is in a couple of clips with a popular Lebanese girl singer. Sabah has had so much work done on her face that if the stitches at the back of her head ever break her ears will ricochet round and meet up with her nose.

Today I went out to the Mall of the Emirates. This is the mall you may have heard about as it has an indoor ski slope. You can watch the skiing from one of the levels of the malls. Very strange sight - The local ladies and gents are in dishdashes and abayas with long puffy coats ski coats on top. I went to see “Pirates of the Caribbean”, while I was at the mall, it’s not as good as the first one but brightened by Geoffrey Rush in the last scene, a taxi back into town, then off to the gold souq to pick up the earrings I’d ordered.

I’m going this weekend to be introduced at the local ‘Hole in the Wall’ where they sell illegal liquor. Consumption of alcohol is illegal in the UAE except for that sold in hotels or drunk by expats who are issued with a licence to purchase a certain amount each year. What to do if you don’t have a licence, have drunk your quota or are of a religion that forbids alcohol consumption. Of course there’s a loop hole and it’s in the form of discreet local joints that sell booze to all and sundry - if they know you. Personal introductions are required at these places but after the honours are done I’ll be able to go in and buy Pimms {snort} to my heart’s content. “I’ll have a dozen Cold Ducks please”……now I’m just being silly.

Ma’a salama


Patrick – I appreciate your confidence in my IT abilities but unfortunately it would seem to be misplaced as right now I’m considering digging the phone plug out of the wall with a spoon.

Saturday, 29 July 2006

I'm here - 28 July 2006

I love business class! I flew with Emirates who provide free transport to the airport for passengers flying business class (that’s me, yay). On Thursday evening I was picked up from work and taken to Sydney airport in a brand new BMW complete with leather upholstery and ‘new car smell’. Baggage allowance in BC is 32kg and my bag weighed in at a mere 31.7kg, I was packing for 6 months after all. My backpack weighed a ton too but I got it on as hand luggage. Strangely enough Australian Customs confiscated the Allen key I had in my handbag. Surely everybody carries an Allen key? What did they think I was going to do, attempt to unscrew the wings or maybe start assembling IKEA furniture in a threatening manner?

The flight to Dubai takes 14 hours and left at about 9:25pm, smooth flying the whole way. The seats in BC, which have a built in massage feature, lie almost flat so I was able to get a few hours sleep and aside from sitting next to a gent with a supersonic snore it was a very pleasant flight. The Snorer woke me and other people nearby several times. At around 3am I caught the eye of a man in the seat across the aisle who glared at The Snorer and made strangling motions with his hands. Having listened to several hours of snore, snore…silence…snore, gag, choke, snore….yes it was a temptation. The flight landed in Dubai at 5:45am where the temperature was already 35! Emirates provided transport from Dubai airport to Sabine and Hisham’s place, just a Volvo wagon this time. Everything here is covered with a fine layer of dust which is the result of a sandstorm somewhere, the cloud of dust was really thick when the plane arrived and has remained all day.

This morning S&H and I went out for brunch at Madinat Jumeirah. This afternoon I did my usual trick of collapsing on their sofa for a few hours until the 4pm call to prayer from the mosque across the road.

Tomorrow we shop and in the evening I’m going with S&H to a party at the Meridien Mina Seyaha. Dress Code: “Dress to impress”!!! Woo-hoo, an excuse to buy something “impressive” tomorrow (like I needed an excuse??)