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!”