Thursday, 27 December 2007

One of the best things to do in Yemen

Go to an ATM and get a printed receipt for your bank balance. With the exchange rate at 53 Yemeni Riyals to each UAE Dirham, you don't have to have a big account balance to be a Riyal millionaire! I'm having my receipt framed as its the only time in my life I'll have a seven figure bank balance.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Yemen 6: A meal 'on the road'

Today was our last day in Yemen and we headed out to the National Museum. The museum is in a modern building in central Sana'a, its very well laid out with lots of interesting artifacts detailing Yemeni history. Most exhibits were labelled in English and Arabic though one exhibition hall was labelled in French and Arabic only. I learned so much about the long history of Yemen. Much archaeological work has been done recently and so there are constant additions to the understanding of Yemen's past. The museum closed for prayers at around 1pm and wouldn't be reopening until 4pm so we walked round to a juice place for a mango juice which we had both missed since leaving Dubai.

We walked back through a souq area where 'a meal on the road' took on a whole new meaning when we were invited to join some Yemeni men for lunch which they were eating, quite literally, on the road. They'd flattened some cardboard boxes out to sit on next to their ute, then purchased salta and bread from one of the local vendors which they were kind enough to share with us. One of the men spoke good English and we had a very funny chat about Lebanese pop singers: Is Nancy Ajram a floozy answer yes/no?

Further down the street I did some serious souvenir shopping and almost bought up an entire shop which sold Yemeni kaffeyas, futtas and wall hangings. It was Christmas Day so I spoke to my kids in Sydney and also to my brother Terry in the UK which was really nice though unfortunately I couldn't hear him very well over the street noise.

The nation seems to shut down most afternoons when the majority of Yemeni men and many of the women gather to chew qat. Qat is a small shrub and the people chew the leaves which give a mild high. We saw boys as young as 10 or 11 with their mouths stuffed full of the stuff, and the city streets are littered with the stalks of plants that have been stripped of leaves. In most countries in the West qat is a controlled or illegal substance Some Yemeni men jam so much qat into their mouths that it looks like one of their cheeks is going to explode and even the soldiers and police are chewing away while they're on duty. The other thing that is really popular is fireworks, we've heard them at all hours of the day and night. Even this morning at 6:30am someone somewhere was firing off a long string of crackers.

In the evening we had dinner at Arabia Felix another hotel not far from our hotel. On the way back we got lost in the souq trying to find a shop belonging to the guy who runs the Yemeni shop at the Global Village in Dubai. Another man led us round to find his house but nobody was home (he was in Dubai surprise, surprise).

After an amazing week in Yemen, we're flying back to Dubai early tomorrow morning and back to work on the 27th. All the photos are here.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Yemen 5: Ma'rib, a trip into the wild heart of Yemen

Today we went out to Ma’rib which is about 215km from Sana’a and its been like a trip to the Wild West. Back in the dim past Ma’rib was the capital of the Sabean empire, the kingdom of the legendary Queen of Sheba who’s known in Yemen as Bilqis. The Sabeans controlled the frankincense trade in the area for many hundreds of years and were very rich and powerful. The photos are here.

Nowadays foreigners are only allowed to travel to Ma’rib if they have an armed military escort. As recently as July this year, six tourists were killed there when a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into their minibus. The Marib region is home to four powerful Yemeni tribes and is thought to be a hotbed of support for Al Qaeda.

Our guide Ali picked us up from the hotel in Sana’a and we drove about half an hour out of town to meet up with the rest of the convoy of 4x4s, about 50 in total which were mostly from various tour companies. We had a police escort for the first hour of the trip but then we stopped at another checkpoint and where we picked up the army escort. The escort was made up of half a dozen soldiers, all armed with AK47s, in a LandCruiser ute with a sub-machine gun mounted on the back. With the Army in the lead, we headed for Ma’rib. As we drove along we passed many army positions some with tanks in place and others with artillary pieces. We stopped at Army checkpoints every couple of kilometres along the way, and each time the procedure was the same: the soldiers would ask Ali where we were from, he’d tell them then they’d look at us, see Colin’s jambia (the dagger) and either give him the thumbs up or smile and say “tammam” (ok) and wave us through. At each checkpoint Ali had to pass over a photocopy of the government authority which allowed us to travel to Ma’rib. He had a pile of copies when we started out but there were none left by the end of the day.

At Mar’ib the local Police took over from the Army guys so we had a Police escort to visit the ruins and other sights we’d come to see. First stop was the village of Old Ma’rib, which dates from 1BC. The village was heavily bombed during the 1962 Civil War. After the '62 war, the residents moved to what is now the new town of Ma’rib. Many of the buildings in Old Ma'rib have gaping holes caused by artillery shells. Mud brick -v- mortars wasn’t a fair fight.

From there we drove to the Great Ma’rib Dam which was built in about 700 BC though recent archaeological work has found remains of primitive dams dated back to 2000 BC. The Great Dam took several hundred years to complete and is believed to have been 700m long and 35m high. It ran between two groups of rocks on either side of what was then a river. Water from the dam irrigated about 70 sq km of desert and supported a population of around 50,000. The final destruction of the dam is noted in the Koran (Chapter of the Saba, v.15-16). Close by is a large new dam which was built with funds from the late Sheikh Zayed of the UAE whose family lines trace back to Yemen.

Next stop was the ‘Arsh Bilqis which the locals called Bilqis’ Palace but researchers think was a temple dedicated to worship of the moon. Either way, there are five magnificent 10m high columns there. Last stop for the morning was Mahram Bilqis which was built prior to 800BC and is believed to have been dedicated to the sun god. It was fenced off so I couldn’t get close enough to see much. We stopped in the new part of Ma’rib for lunch at a hotel which had a swimming pool, something I didn't expect to see out in the backblocks. After lunch we got back into the LandCruiser to wait for the Police escort but we struck a snag, our Police escort was supposed to meet us at the hotel and do the trip back to the checkpoint where we’d pick up the Army boys, but they failed to turn up. There were two 4x4s waiting for an escort, us and an Italian couple (the majority of tourists to Yemen are Italian not sure why). Both the other driver and our guide Ali rang “people who know people” and shortly afterwards a police car pulled into the hotel driveway. In an entertaining diversion, an overweight police sergeant got out, waved his arms in the air while ranting and raving in Arabic (no translation was required, it was a hizzy fit in anyone’s language) he then squeezed himself back into the car, slammed the door and drove off in a flurry leaving even the Arabic speakers bemused. (If you’ve seen “Snatch” it was reminiscent of the scene where Tyrone is ‘pouring’ himself into a car.) Ten minutes later another police car arrived this time full of police with their stereo blasting out the latest Lebanese hits, and we all headed out to meet the military escort. Our armed military escort this time was a lone soldier who looked about 12 years old though still armed with an AK47. The soldier sat in the front passenger seat of our LandCruiser chatting happily to Ali. What can I say? Anyone who feels uncomfortable about travelling at speed in a car with loaded guns shouldn’t travel in Yemen. Even so, it was a bit of a concern to us when the soldier was resting his gun across his knees and the barrel was pointing directly at Colin in the back seat. A while later Colin told me that the soldier was resting his chin on the barrel of his gun, my only comment was, “Well, I’m not cleaning the roof.” All joking aside, its obvious from past events that there is the potential for serious stuff to happen at any time - I’d noticed earlier in the day that our guide was also carrying a pistol tucked into the back of his futa (mens’ skirt) and he seemed to me to be a man who'd have no hesitation in using it.

We dropped the soldier off at the last checkpoint and headed back to Sana'a. Our long day ended back at the hotel and saying goodbye to Ali. We have a day to ourselves tomorrow, our last day in Yemen. The plan at the moment is to see the National Museum.

At no point have either of us thought about hiring a car - not now we've seen how they drive here. The Lonely Planet guide to Yemen says something like "...maniacal drivers with a complete disregard for the few existing road rules...." All I can say is "You're kidding? There's a rule?"

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Yemen 4: Something fishy

Photos are here.

Yesterday we came down from the Yemeni highlands and onto the plain on the Yemeni coast of the Red Sea. The first thing I noticed was a huge increase in humidity. It was like Auckland where you can often break into a sweat just by standing still.

We started the day with a visit to the Hodaida fish market. The market was held in a large shed with open sides and the place was very busy with lots of noise and bustle. The small blue fishing boats were still coming in alongside the wharf. The boats are very small only 5-6 metres long, I wouldn’t want to go up the Whau Creek or the Parramatta River in one let alone out to sea. The crew of the boats unloaded their catches by hand including some fairly sizable sharks. They tie a rope around the tail of the shark and haul it out of the hold like a tug-o-war. To unload the smaller fish one guy sits in the hold and throws the fish into large woven baskets held by two other guys who then run with the baskets out into the market area. Mostly the fish is sold straight from the basket but some people had tarpaulins that they emptied the baskets onto and then handfuls of salt are thrown over the fish to minimally preserve it and the customers cluster round to buy. A piece of string is threaded through the fishes’ mouths, tied to form a handle and the customer then carries their purchase away. There was a man who was acting as auctioneer as well as the fishermen selling direct to the public.

From Hodaida we headed into the mountains again to the shrine at Al Khatayb. The shrine itself is dedicated to a 16th century imam and is made of luminous white marble with large silver doors engraved with inscriptions from the Koran. On a hill overlooking a shrine is a tiny mosque. We walked up to the top for a nice view over the valley below. We have both been affected slightly by the altitude here. On the first day I was puffed after only a couple of flights of stairs so the climb up to the mini-mosque was really hard work.

Next stop was the 11th century village of Al Hajjarah which, like many villages we’ve seen since we’ve been in Yemen, is perched on the edge of a steep cliff. The houses are built directly onto the rocks. The bottom floor of the house is for the animals, the next floor up is for storing grain etc, next up is for visitors, up again is the family accommodation and the top floor lounge has the best view.

We headed down from Al Hajjarh to the small town of Manakhah where we had lunch and, in what was a real thrill (to me), watched a performance of local dance and music put on by some local men. They asked us up to dance and I didn’t need to be asked twice as you can imagine. Yemeni dance is so much fun, its done in pairs with each partner taking turns leading the steps. The other people sit around clapping and singing. Colin got up and joined in the men’s dance with the jambia (dagger) he’d bought earlier in Sana’a. Great experience and most of it on video thanks to our guide Ali who proved to be a good cameraman.

The most common Yemeni snack food is boiled eggs. Wherever we’ve been in Yemen there’s always a tea shop and a boy selling boiled eggs. If you pay a bit extra he’ll peel your egg for you. The tea is always pre-sweetened but even so most of the locals seem to add at least 2 teaspoons of sugar to their cups – they like a bit of tea with their sugar!

In Yemen like in Dubai and other parts of the Middle East and the sub- continent, its common to see two men walking along the street holding hands. It has none of the meaning we would construe in the West, as here its just two male friends making contact, I guess its like an extended handshake.

The traditional Yemeni men’s clothing is a calf length skirt called a futa which is like the Pacific Island sulu. Futas in each area of Yemen have their own particular design so when a man walks down the street wearing a futa everyone knows where he comes from. This seemed to explain some of the attitudes towards our guide Ali as we went around the countryside. Ali is from Al Beara and I didn’t need to speak Arabic to pick up the occasional cool reception he got from some of the people he talked to and sometimes there was a definite “You’re not from round here are you?” feeling. In other places it was all smiles and hand shaking. In some towns the majority of men wore futas, in other places most were wearing white dishdashes, but without exception every man over the age of 12 (and some even younger) wore a jambia (dagger) on a heavily embroidered belt.

From Manakhah we headed back to Sana’a through the mountains. Over many generations Yemenis have built terraces on the side of the mountains there doesn't seem to be any area on some of the mountains which hasn't been terraced no matter how steep. They have planted the terraces with crops, often millet and in the recent past coffee. I didn’t know that the name ‘mocha’ comes from the town of Mokka in Yemen (CSM trivial fact # 36572).

Tomorrow we’re going to a town called Marib. The road from Sana’a to Marib is only accessible to foreigners if they travel in a convoy and have a military escort so we have to be at the checkpoint about 30 minutes out of Sana’a at 9am tomorrow morning.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Yemen 2 and 3: From the mountains to the (Red) Sea

Sana'a is reputed to be around 2,500 years old and according to legend, was built by Shem the son of Noah. Its been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The photos are here.

On Day 2 we went out for a walk to find the Military Museum. One of the first things I noticed was that all the women in Sana'a wore burqa (face covering). The only females with uncovered faces were young girls but even many of them wore head scarves. From my first day in San'a I got the feeling that this is a very conservative place and it would be advisable to wear hijab whenever I was outside the hotel which I have done. I had hijab wearing lessons from Rasha before coming down the Yemen so I was prepared. She's right though they've got to be 3 meters long,anything less and they fall off which is really annoying).
We walked from the hotel along As-Sailah the paved wadi and got lost several times on the way. After asking a couple of policemen in a parked car for directions we found the Museum. It was interesting though most of the exhibits were labelled in Arabic only which was a bit frustrating I would have liked to know more about some of the old archaeological pieces on display. The museum certainly had an eclectic collection; there were rifles, guns, a Mig aircraft, fairly graphic execution photos and other war type paraphernalia but also sports trophies and, for a reason I have yet to fathom, a display of dolls' house furniture. The political slant of the explanation was evident, nobody likes Iman Yahiya who was the last ruler of Yemen pre-revolution and was finally assassinated after several attempts.
After the museum visit, we wandered around the city area which reminds me so much of Kabul, Afghanistan in '78. We walked down to Bab al Yemen the last remaining city gate in the old city wall. The gates are huge they must be 15ft high and at least 6 inches thick. I noticed at the top of one of the gates a large hole right through the thickness of the gate caused by an artillery shell. We wandered back through the souq getting lost again in the process and eventually after asking for directions we were walked back to the hotel by a couple of local boys. We had a coffee (or two) and then shared a couple of bottles of Becks Non-Alcoholic Beer (all the taste without the kick) and then walked back to the souq. More shops in the souq are open now as people return to work after the Eid. We were both baffled by the sight of a half grown camel chewing on hay in a cellar down one of the side streets being watched by several kids. What it was doing down there I don't know.

Day 3 and today we left the hotel in San'a early for Wadi Dhahr to see the rock palace known as Dar al-Hajar. The palace is 5 storeys high and sits on top of a single rock having been built on pre historic burial caves. It was surprisingly extensive with lots of different rooms and had the advantage to the occupiers of an internal well. There was a separate majlis (meeting room) opening out onto fountains and what would have been a garden back in the day.

From Wadi Dhahar to Thula, where we were set upon by the local merchants and harassed in a way I haven't encountered since India. Thula contains some houses that were built by Jewish silver merchants and then abandoned in 1948 when the occupants moved to Israel.

At Hababah we took some photos of the large village pond and then drove on to Shibam where we had lunch. The restaurant was on a dusty street and customers first walk into a large room with two men working with incredibly hot open stoves on an elevated platform. After walking through that room we went into the restaurant which was set out over 5 floors of a traditional house. Many of the areas were separate rooms for use by families or groups of ladies and there was also a separate ladies majlis on the top floor. We sat in the large communal area on the top floor. In what was a highlight of the trip so far, we were invited to join a local family to eat with them. The food was laid out on the floor, we had a spoon each, a piece of flat bread to use as a plate and then it was every one for themselves. I tried a local dish called Fatta which is made of layers of thin pancakes with egg on top, spicy and really nice.

After lunch we headed up to Kawkoban a village clinging to the side of Jebel Kawkoban above Shibam. The residents of Shibam used to head up to Kawkoban for shelter when they were threatened by raiding parties from rival tribes.
As the fog started to roll down the mountains we entered al Tawila, a small and rather unexciting village. We wandered through the village and moved on to Mahweet where we stayed the night at the Mahweet Hotel which now holds the title of "Hotel with the Hardest Mattresses in the World".

Early the next day we headed off to Jebel Ariadi which gave us incredible views down into a deep rift valley. We stopped on the way at a one room factory on the roadside where two young guys were carving gypsum templates that are about 25mm thick, a stencil is laid over the top and the boys carve out the pattern. Later on stained glass is inserted into the gaps.

From there we had a 2 hour trip (seemed like 4 hours) which took us the length of Wadi Saraa over some very rough roads. We saw lots of small villages on the way, kids out herding goats and many donkeys working hard. The clothing being worn by the ladies changed a bit though one part of the wadi, the ladies were wearing bright clothing, a head scarf but without having their faces covered. Also they wore broad woven hats similar to those worn by the Indians in the Andes. We passed though Kamis bani Saad and arrived in Bajel for lunch at a "Brost Restaurant". We went upstairs to the "family area" which is used by family groups or groups of ladies so they have privacy from the men downstairs. In the family area we had our own screened off area. After lunch we got back into the car passing the people begging or trying to sell boxes of tissues.

Next we headed to our overnight stop of Al Hodaidah on the Red Sea. Al Hodaidah is Yemen's largest seaport, larger than Aden. Ali our guide took us down to the beach and we had a pleasant walk along the sand collecting shells and enjoying the sight of Yemeni families doing what families at the beach do all over the world. We wandered around the Hodaidah souq and I bought some music. Afterwards we went for dinner at a seafood joint which proved to be a great experience. There are restaurants, there are cafes and then there are places that can only be described as "joints" and this was definitely one of the latter, this place was a Joint with a capital "J". I can't tell you what the name of the place was it was all in Arabic. First we had to go across the road from the restaurant to haggle with the fishermen to buy the fish for our dinner. The men are all in traditional clothing including the dagger and the fish is displayed in large flax baskets. Colin chose three fish which were like breem and also bought 500g of prawns: total cost 40AED ($13) then back to the restaurant where they took the fish into the kitchen to cooked them. The waiter laid out the tablecloth which was actually fresh pages from the Khaleej Times (the English language newspaper from Dubai) and then handed us huge slabs of fresh bread to eat with the fish. The prawns were served with a bowl of lemony sauce and they also grilled the fish in a tasty peppery coating. The fish was bought out on a big plate and then the waiter put the fish directly onto the newspaper in front of us. All fingers, no cutlery here. Meanwhile semi organised chaos carried on around us with customers yelling at waiters, waiters yelling at the cooks and the cooks yelling abuse at everyone. All the while there were flames coming out of the gap in the wall where we could see into the kitchen, the box of Gladwrap next to the gap started melting and the food was so hot it must have been cooked with oxy-acetylene blow torches. It was the best seafood meal I’ve ever had in my life. It was a real local place full of fishermen and locals and as I was the only woman in the place I got some curious looks but after the initial surprise everyone was too interested in their food to pay any attention to me.

That's it for the moment. Off tomorrow to the fish market and then a round trip back to Sana'a

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Yemen 1: Old Sana'a, a medieval-modern Islamic city

We were up at 4am this morning and heading out to Dubai airport for our Emirates flight to Sana'a the capital of Yemen. The flight took just over 2 hours. As Sana'a is at 7,000ft above sea level the pilot needs to have a special licence to land there. We met Bruce, a Kiwi guy from Paraparaumu ("Paraparam") in the immigration queue while we were waiting to get our entry visas. Bruce has worked on the oil fields in the Middle East for 15 years or so. He now works in Yemen but he was saying that the last job he had was in the backblocks in Oman where summer temperatures often reached 65c, which makes 50c in Dubai seem cool in comparison. He told us that Yemeni driving was worse and more frightening than Dubai driving. Hard to believe but he was right. Judging from the cars we saw there isn't a straight panel on any car in Sana'a and we now know why! On the drive from the airport there were cars coming at us from all sides, including a stationwagon with a goat in the back, utes loaded with kids, there are no lane markings, pedestrians just do whatever they like and as for the motorbikes, well, if you can't get at least three people on a motor bike then you just aren't trying. Seems to me that Yemeni drivers would cease to function if they couldn't use their horns. One of the major roads is a dry river bed which has been converted into a road with high sides which still floods when there's heavy rain.

Our hotel is in the middle of the old town of Sana'a. In its' past, Sana'a has recovered from floods, earthquakes, looting by tribesmen, and during the 1994 Civil War, a Scud missile attack. The entire old town area of Sana'a was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. The unique tower houses are made of mud brick and up to 5 storeys high. Their origin lies in the remote villages where farmland was scarce and building vertically was the only way to accommodate the people while making efficient use of the available land. Ibn Rustah, a 10th century Persian explorer, wrote about Sana'a in his Book of Precious Records describing “houses adorned with gypsum, baked bricks and symmetrical stones.” The exterior walls of the houses and the edges of the windows are marked with white gypsum which gives the look that's unique to Yemen. In the afternoon we wandered around the area and had a wonderful time, the Yemeni people were so friendly, the men and kids happily posed for photos of course the ladies are off limits for photographs. I was pleasantly surprised that not one of the kids asked for baksheesh. People passing us said "hello" or "asalam aleikum", or gave the thumbs up. Colin bought a jambiyya which is the traditional Yemeni knife. It is attached to a belt covered in intricate handwork which takes a woman a month to stitch, though the majority seemed to be machine made. He wore it like the Yemeni men do and this seemed to be a hit with the local guys. We went off down an alleyway to a shop which sold antique guns and bought an old English rifle dating from 1874. Today is the first day of Eid al Adha so its a public holiday and most of the shops in the souq were closed.

One of the Eid traditions is that on the first day all the children are given new clothes, so the streets of Sana'a were filled with little girls in gorgeous fairy/princess dresses even fairy wings on a couple of littlies and the boys in new dishdashes (I don't know what they call them in Yemen). Every male over the age of 12 wears a jambiyya (the dagger) as part of his every day clothes and it's a point of pride. However, they are for show and rarely drawn in anger. In the Emirates and Oman the daggers are called "khanjar" and are only worn on special occasions. In Dubai you'll never see a man wearing a dagger, in Yemen you'll never see a man without one! The dagger styles and shapes differ from place to place and the handles are made of everything from rhino horn to plastic and some of the blades are old while others are made of recycled metal taken from car driveshafts. The scabbards of Yemeni daggers are often bound in a green fabric tape (legal secs, its like the tape we used to bind legal briefs back in the old days)

We have another day in Sana'a tomorrow before heading off for 3 days into the countryside. Our photos of Old Sana'a are here.

(1) Richard Brooks Jeffery, Assistant Curator, College of Architecture, University of Arizona.
(2) Eric Hanson's article in Saudi Aramco World.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Chrimbo approaches

Things are starting to wind up for the Eid/Christmas break here. Western firms are having their Christmas parties (we're going to the Lebanese restaurant at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel) and many expats are flying back home to spend Christmas with their families. The Muslim festival that occurs at this time of the year is Eid al-Adha which falls around the same time as Christmas every year and is the most important feast of the Muslim calendar. It concludes the pilgrimage to Mecca. The exact date for Eid is decided by the sighting of the full moon but the dates haven't been announced yet as the decree has to come from the Moon Committee in Saudi. Once the announcement is made everyone has two days holiday followed a few days later by a couple of days off for Christmas for Western companies. By taking one or two days of annual leave I'll have nearly a full week off. We're making the most of it and heading to Yemen for a week.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Oman weekend

Cathy and Stan my long time friends from NZ are visiting Dubai. They've had a week in Jordan which they thoroughly enjoyed and are now back in Dubai. Colin and I and C&S left Dubai after work and headed to the Mezyad border. After the irritation (to Colin) of Kiwis crossing over to Oman for free while he has to pay, we were over without too much trouble. As a reality check however, one the other women in the group is Algerian and the Omani border guards refused to let her over the border because she, as a married woman, was travelling without a letter of permission from her husband. In the end she phoned her husband who had to drive all the way down to the border from Dubai (2 hours)to show his passport and write the necessary letter of permission, and only then was she permitted to cross the border.

Next stop was an overnight stay at the Ibri Hotel. Strangely for a hotel in the back blocks of Oman, the Ibri Hotel makes some of the finest chips in the world. Next day we went out to the pre-historic tombs at Bat, then to Al Ayn where the 5,000year old tombs are far better preserved. Next we went to Al Hoota Cave at the foot of Jabal Shams. The cave system is 5kms long though only about 1/10th of it is currently available to view. The path through the cave passes lots of stalagmites and stalagtites. There were other amazing rock formations formed by the movement of the water through the caves over the centuries. The water flow still continues sometimes to extremes as the cave system was closed to visitors for 7 months due to a total flood of the cave system after heavy rain.Al Hoota only reopened recently. Next to Misfat al Abreyeen an mountainside village which has an ancient but still functioning irrigation system of water channels which carry water to all parts of the village and into the cliff side fields where dates and other small crops are grown.

Next stop Nizwa and the Golden Tulip Hotel. It was the end of a long day so after checking in, being given the wrong room and having to go back to reception to change rooms, we went to the Al Wasit Bar in the hotel which is a faux English pub style bar. We ordered 3 beers and a bottle of water for the 4 of us. The prices for nuts, light snacks are on display on the bar but nowhere is the price for alcohol displayed and, in a large hotel, I wouldn't expect to have to work the bill out myself anyway. I ordered the drinks, the waitress told me the price and I paid it. Later, while we sat at the table I ordered another 3 beers and another member of the foursome paid the amount the waitress asked for. As we left the bar, a waiter ran after us and asked me to pay for two more beers. We'd paid everything they'd asked for so I told him there must be a mistake. Later while we sat at dinner the waitress approached me and asked me to pay for three more beers. I told her "no", that I ordered the drinks, had paid what she asked and that was that. She told me (a) she had mistaken the price, then (b) that she had confused my order with another customer (Ha! In the whole time we were in the bar only one other couple came in) then (c) that she had not realised that I was paying for the whole round (Come on! In an international hotel the concept of paying for 'rounds' would not be foreign to her!). I then had to get up from dinner with my partner and friends and go back to the bar where, to the total horror of the staff, I asked to see the till receipts but oh what a surprise, there were none as she'd "forgotten" to put it through the till. She then proceeded to get out a piece of paper and cover it with figures and arrows which supposedly showed that I still had to pay for three drinks. I asked to see the manager and his reaction was to shrug his shoulders. My partner asked the waitress to explain again and there was more paper with more figures, lines and arrows. In the end, as my evening had been completely spoilt, I paid the 6 Riyals for the beers which supposedly had cost 5.701 and I was handed change for the 6 Riyals I paid. The change was wrapped in a till receipt. I left the bar without checking the change and went to reception, complained to the manager and got more shrugging of shoulders which seems to be a Golden Tulip Nizwa specialty. I found later to my great amusement that the waitress in a final act of customer alienation had shortchanged me and had only given me 200 baisa change instead of 300. However, she had managed to put the money into the till this time and give me a printed receipt for the 6 Riyals at least.

Next day we wandered round the Nizwa market then the Nizwa Fort, over to the Bahla pottery and the walls of Bahla fort which we couldn't get into as it is still being restored. In the afternoon we went over to Jabreen Castle and finished the weekend with a visit to the deserted village at Al Salaif. The residents of Al Sulaif moved out 30 years ago and the place has been deserted since then. Its like a ghost town, the mosque had ceiling fans still hanging in place from the rafters. The photos are here.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Dubai: A victim of its own success?

In most places round the world when people get together, the first topic of conversation is usually the weather. Here in Dubai there's only one hot topic and that's the traffic. Dubai has become a victim of its own success as an ever increasing number of cars coupled with constant road reorganisation cause traffic congestion which is slowly choking the city. While the roads cannot cope with the number of cars, the drivers cannot cope with the ever changing road systems, deceptive lane markings and road closures which usually happen without warning. A few months ago a taxi driver warned me in advance that we could get lost as he had been out to my destination twice already that day and the road pattern had been different each time. To give some examples, one morning recently Dubai drivers found that the fast lane on Trade Centre Road was blocked off by barriers just before the WTC roundabout with no warning given resulting in much screeching of brakes and swerving; further along the same road near BurJuman the fast lane was again blocked by witches hats, no warning, no obvious reason and much swerving. Up till recently if a driver followed the left hand lane on the Bur Juman roundabout they would find themselves directed straight into a wall opposite the Al Attair Building where the lane simply ends in the middle of the roundabout, no warning of course and laughable if it wasn't so dangerous.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: we are forced to drive our cars as there is no public transport but when you drive anywhere it takes so damn long to get there. As an example, yesterday morning at 6:45am it took me 12 minutes to drive the 5kms from Satwa to BurJuman. The same trip this evening took a mind numbing 1 hour 5 mins including a 20 minute crawl down the road that runs down beside the Fairmont Hotel which is only 200 metres long.

The local rumour is that the Metro system is now 12 months behind schedule and will not now open until 2010. Unless the transport problem is dealt with, many people may have packed up and moved to Abu Dhabi by then (if there was any rental accommodation available in AD but that's another story........)

Sunday, 4 November 2007

First Christmas Tree 2007

I've spotted the first Chrissy tree of the season at PlugIns at BurJuman. Also heard the first Christmas musak of 2007 in La Sensa also in BurJuman - a sort of funky Gloria Gaynor-ish rendering of the Bing Crosby song "Merry Christmas to You".

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

From the desert to the Tasman Sea (or "Two Weeks Without Laban")

Its hard to believe that after waiting so long for the trip back to NZ/Aus to happen, it's now been and gone. We left Dubai on 12 October on the Emirates direct flight to Sydney which takes 14 hours. We arrived early on Saturday 13 October and having used all available airpoints and travelled business class we had a Emirates supplied chaffeur and car waiting at the airport to take us to Colin's parents' place where we were staying.

Almost from the minute we arrived it was full-on the whole time we were there. I tried to catch up with as many people as possible but I ran out of time to see everyone I'd wanted to see, and I have to apologise that I eventually resorted to some last minute phone calls.

On one gorgeous day we "ran away to sea" and caught the ferry to Watsons Bay. We did a local walk up to South Head and along to the Gap. We wandered back down to the bay, had fish and chips at Doyles and sat in the garden bar of the Palace hotel enjoying the afternoon with a couple of schooners, then caught the ferry back to Circular Quay.

While we were in Sydney we went to the Motor Show and there are some photos here.

Between 19 - 22 October I went back to New Zealand and lurked around the Wild West of Auckland for the first time in probably 7 or 8 years. Photos are here. I stayed with Rae and Brad who drove me round some of the "old haunts" including a visit to the house at Steamhauler Track. Some things in Auckland have changed greatly, the development down at the Viaduct Basin was fantastic and it was also good to see the Britomart train station finally operating. The growth and expansion of the Western suburbs was amazing but further out in the sticks not much has changed at all. Bought an Edmonds Cookbook too!

The day after returning to Sydney I went up to the Gold Coast to visit my parents and lived. (James rode shotgun with me.) A couple of days before coming back to Dubai I had lunch with my former bosses from Maddocks at the Italian restaurant inside what was the GPO in Martin Place. I also quickly became a regular at the gym at Ryde-Eastwood Leagues.

The flight back from Sydney to Bangkok was surprising because it was nearly empty and most people in the economy section were able to have a row of 4 seats for themselves and actually get some sleep. It was 'flat bed' without the First Class price! Unfortunately after the stop in Bangkok the plane filled up and economy class reverted to the usual uncomfortable, crowded nightmare that we all know and hate. Only good thing is that the plane was a Boeing 777 which has a small gap between the window seat and the plane wall so you can lean your head on your pillow against the wall while attempting to get some sleep. On the Airbus there is a much larger gap between the window seat and the wall as a result the pillow falls down the gap and you can't lean against the wall. This is all very important in the cramped confines of Cattle Class where any seating position which even vaguely resembles comfort is a huge bonus.

Yesterday Colin won tickets for 'Jumana'. In November we're going to Oman to Bahla Fort for a special visit organised through the Architectural Historical Society; the launch of the new Honda Accord; a trip round the Bastikiya windtowers in Dubai and this Friday I'm doing a desert driving course in the Disco so I'll be able to scoot round the sand dunes like a professional. Cathy and Stan arrive next weekend and I'm looking forward to that. They are bringing chocolate fish and afghans - what more could a Kiwi want?

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Welcome home.....

Yes, as a nation we Kiwis keep it all in proportion. Last time the AB's lost the World Cup we changed the government, but this time its personal..........

Saturday, 6 October 2007

It's a drag in Umm al Quwain

Last night we went down to Umm al Quwain to the drag races which are held there the first weekend of the month. There's more photos here. We 'accidently' got into the VIP parking and then wandered down pit lane looking at all the cars. While we were looking at the cars, we met Joe Lepone the American racer who is in Dubai to establish the drag races and train the drivers. He showed us one of the cars which has 2,300 horse power and has more take-off power than one of the space shuttles. The meeting didn't start until late because of Ramadan, scheduled start was 9pm but the first race finally got under way about 10:30pm. We watched the races until the driver of one of the Supras blew up his engine half way down the track and showered the track with oil and engine parts holding everything up. By this time it was nearly 11:30 and with an hour drive back to Dubai we headed for home. We'd already done a bike/car run to Hatta in the morning, we don't waste our weekends!

Sunday, 23 September 2007

To Muscat and back

Last weekend we had a one night stay at the Barr al Jissah resort which is about 16kms out of Muscat the capital of Oman. The trip from Dubai takes about 4 hours by car depending on the time taken at the border crossing between the UAE and Oman. Getting across the border was relatively painless this time, though it irritates Colin that, with an Australian passport he has to (a) queue at the Omani border to get a form, take it away to fill it in then queue again to hand it back and get his passport stamped and (b) he has to pay 30AED for that process. Meanwhile because of my little old NZ passport I don't have to fill in the form and I don't have to pay a cent, nothing, nil, free, gratis and for nothing. My theory is that NZ passport holders don't have to fill in a form because there are so few of us that the Kiwi powers-that-be know where each of us is at any one time....

The Barr al Jissah is three hotels on the one site; 3 star, 5 star and 7 star. Being Ramadan it was quiet which made it even nicer. First we had a swim at the beach where the water temperature was 33 then went into the hotel pool where the water, at 31, seemed chilly by comparison. At poolside, there is one guy who comes round offering chilled faceclothes from a chilly bin followed by another guy who cleans your sunglasses for you. This is the life. In the evening we drove into Muscat and walked around Muttrah souq. When I was there a couple of years ago the souq had dusty unpaved paths, flies and a slightly raffish air. Now the paths are paved and the shops are being modernised and while its a more pleasant place to be fortunately it hasn't lost its 'exotic' feel. We drove round the waterfront and spotted Sultan Qaboos' royal dhow then took some photos of the royal palace and the castles.

Next day we drove out to one of Colin's favourite spots called Yitti and a bay next to it called Yankit. Yankit is so beautiful as you'll see from the photos. The effects of Cyclone Gonu which hit Oman in June were still evident as we travelled out to the bays. It was a shock to see the damage to a couple of villages we passed through. The villages were in the wadis and must have been hit by the surge of water coming down the mountains. Some houses had been demolised by the force of the water and many of those remaining were badly damaged. We saw some families who were living in tents next to their damaged homes. Some of the trees that had survived still had debris hanging from their highest branches. Yet we heard so little about it in Dubai.

We left Muscat and drove back to the border. In the car park of the Omani border post which looks like a palace (see one of my earlier posts for a full story) the sound of the Audi ticking over while we sat in the queue attracted the attention of some of the local boys so Colin gave them a little 'demo' to keep them happy. The boys were very pleased so what can I say except that it was "a drive-by thrilling" hahahahaha...........

Friday, 14 September 2007

Tiger, tiger burning bright....

Today Colin, Mal and I went to see the model of the Dubailand development. Dubailand is a huge development (45 mega projects)of hotels, resorts and theme parks. There's Phaoroh's World with a theme park and several hotels, Sports City which includes the ICC Headquarters, Water World which is a $US1.8 billion water park and another called Motor City, there'll be Equestrian World, Snow World, X-treme Sports World and that's just a start. Being Dubai there'll be shopping in the Mall of Arabia which will be the world's biggest shoppping mall. The Global Village is going to be part of Dubailand including a model of the Eiffel Tower which will be 1.5 times bigger than the original in Paris. The whole site will cover 8,00 acres which is the size of Singapore.

The Dubailand media centre that we went to see features a massive scale model of the development. Visitors walk around a gallery and look at the model below, its that big.

In the media centre reception area there's a wall of windows looking out into a grassed area. And who lives there? Two enormous Bengal tigers who come right up to the glass of the reception area and pace up and down about 6 inches away from you. Tigers in reception?? That's so Dubai.

The photos are here.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Ramadan kareem!

Today is the first day of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Muslim year which follows a lunar calendar. Each month begins with a sighting of the moon's crescent and lasts 29 or 30 days until the sighting of the next month's crescent. The month of Ramadan commemorates the days when the Angel Gabriel imparted the Koran, Islam's holy book, to the Prophet Mohammed. It is during this month that Muslims fast. According to Sharia, or Islamic law, all adult Muslims must fast during the holy month with only pregnant and nursing women, the sick and travelers being exempt. The daily fast lasts from sunrise to sunset and is broken after evening prayers with a meal called iftar. Iftar is a very social time when people get together with family and friends to eat, relax, often to smoke shisha, its really nice.

For an expat what are the noticable changes during Ramadan?

In general: No eating, drinking or smoking in public.

Socially: Barracuda in UAQ is closed for the month.

On the road: This morning there was less traffic on the road, the late start at work means that I went to the gym at 7:30am. The traffic normally would be a nightmare but today it all flowed smoothly.

At the mall: The coffee shops, food courts and restaurants are closed all day. They open after the evening prayers and then stay open most of the night. The local Maccas opens at 6:30pm and closes just before sunrise prayers at 4:30am. Hotel restaurants stay open for guests but the eating areas are screened off from public view. The local wisdom is that one should stay off the road just before evening prayer time as those who have been fasting all day are really grumpy by that time and are in a hurry to either get to the mosque for prayers or get home for something to eat.

At the mall: No musak in the mall, thank goodness as recently its included that dreadful old thing "Yes sir I can boogy" sung by a girl with a thick Eastern European accent so having no music is a good thing. Instead readings from the Koran play over the PA. I like it as the reading at BurJuman is by an imam from Riyadh with the most glorious voice.

At the gym: No music playing over the PA. No water bottles in use. No music videos playing on the bank of screens in front of the cardio machines either, instead there's sports, CNN news and old Egyptian movies.

At work: Over the month of Ramadan the office working hours are 9:30 - 3:30. No water bottles or coffee cups on the desks and those who want to eat or drink go into the Boardroom.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

And the winner is....

Colin was invited to be part of the launch of the new Toyota FJ Cruiser (their new 4x4) so last weekend we went out into the desert as part of a group to have a test drive. We had coffee and nibbles afterwards and everyone wrote an appraisal of the car. The appraisals went into a draw to win a Panasonic DVD player and they've just called me from Toyota to say that I won it. Wow! I've never won anything before, except a coconut from the coconut shy at a fair in Mt Roskill when I was little but the truth is that my big brother had actually thrown the ball for me (Griffin Park it was). I'll probably go out on Thursday evening to pick it up. This is very exciting.

Monday, 20 August 2007

A cool break in Salalah, Oman

Salalah is the second largest city in Oman and the birthplace of Sultan Qaboos. Its in the south of Oman a couple of hours drive from the border with Yemen. I was there last year and have been so looking forward to returning this year. As Salalah is effected by the monsoons during June-Sept, a period known as the Khareef, many tourists from around the Gulf head to the area to enjoy the resulting cooler climate. The town is very conservative with 99% of the local ladies wearing burqa (face covering) along with the usual abeya and hijab (black gown and headcovering). Like last year, there seemed to be very few Western tourists around and, aside from a pair of American couples, we seemed to be the only non-Arabs staying at the Tourist Village.

Thursday - A three hour trip turned into an all day journey because of delays with Oman Airways and we missed our connecting flight for Salalah - a slip on the keyboard turns Oman Airways into Moan Airways and after 4 hours waiting at Muscat airport that's what you feel like doing - but we eventually arrived in the cool air of a balmy Salalah evening. We picked up the car at the airport, a manual Landcruiser, and I'd learnt from last year that the rental company cars have tape players only so I was ready with a handful of tapes.

Friday - Out into the mist for the drive to the Muqsayl blowholes then up the Safayl Road which is a huge construction where the road rises 1200 metres in just 8 hairpin bends. We had a picnic lunch in the fog like the locals then drove to the Ayn Razat gardens. Heading back to Salalah township we stopped at the Al Baleed archaeological park which was fascinating. Al Baleed was original known as Dhofar, the name now given to the entire region of which Salalah is the capital and was a major harbour in the 9th-13th centuries for trade in gold, frankincense and horses with much business being done between Oman, India and China. Marco Polo visited the town in 1285AD. There is a wide path through and around the archaeological site with seats under large sunshades along the way for a break from the humidity. You can sit in the shade and watch the world go by while enjoying the mountains in the distance (if you can see them through the fog), the sound of the sea and the views of the banana plantations nearby. There's also a very interesting maritime museum on the site that's well worth a visit.

In the evening we went over to the Global Village held on the same site as the Tourist Village where we were staying. Lots to see and buy, a local dance troupe to watch and the latest style of hijab and abeya for sale (I was told that Salalah ladies lead the fashion trends and Dubai ladies follow, so I bought a couple of 'new look' hijabs for a friend at work).

Saturday - Out to Taqa to see the castle which, while small, is beautifully restored. From there to Mirbat where I was dismayed by the amount of damage done to the castle by the recent storms. Mirbat was a once thriving town but is now run down and neglected. It was the site of the Battle of Mirbat in July 1972 during the Dhofar Rebellion. For more on that go here. I took a few photos of one of the old merchants' houses that must have been gorgeous in its prime. Later when we visited Salalah museum I was amazed to see exactly the same building in a photo taken by Wilfred Thesinger on one of his early expeditions. From Mirbat we went up to the 'magnetic road' where The Engineer shattered my illusions and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the road isn't magnetic, its just an optical illusion. Boohoo, I want to believe! Moving right along, our next stop was Khor Rori and the ruins of a town known in the past as Sumharam. The town was a major frankincense trading port in Roman times. It was also a crucial point in the internal trade towards south-eastern Arabia and the northern coast of Oman which was rich in copper. Carbon dating of pottery fragments found at the site has proved however that the town existed as early as the 4th century BC. The final stop in our packed day was the beautiful, lush greenery of Wadi Dharbat where chlorophyll rules. Looking up the valley covered in vibrant greenery with low clouds looming, it could have been anywhere in the Waitakeres and I got all nostalgic for a second. The storm damage was very much evident here as the force of the flood water has in somes places lifted the entire tarmac road surface like the skin of a custard and slide it sideways dumping it on the side of the road further on. Its very strange to see the pieces of the road, some with the centre line painted on, lying in jumbled piles or caught in the roots of trees.

Sunday - My birthday today and a day of contrasts. We drove from Salalah up to Lost City of Ubar, DH Lawrence called it the "Atlantis of the Sands". We started the day at sea level and headed up through the mountains behind Salalah. On the way we drove through fog so thick that we couldn't see the car in front and even 19kph seemed like a breakneck speed. Then, like magic the fog cleared and we were on the plateau above Salalah where the terrain was dry desert like Dubai. We headed to the small town of Thumrait for coffee (made with sweetened condensed milk, no need to ask for extra sugar). The restaurant was the same one Sabine and I stopped at last year, with the family rooms divided by plywood sheets that have at least 2 ft of clear space under them so you can see the bottom half of the people in the next cubicle. Jess rang to wish me H/Bd and I sat talking to her outside the restaurant watching the long haul trucks fill up at the petrol station and the local guys driving into the carpark, parking anywhere they liked and then heading to the mosque on the edge of the carpark for noon prayers. Next a 70 km drive out to Ubar on metal roads through the Middle of Nowhere, Desert Division. Ubar was a major resting point on the Frankinsence Trail as it contained an important water source. According to legend, Ubar was destroyed during a disaster about 100AD and was buried by sand and, as you can see from the photos, a large part of what was the town has fallen into a sinkhole created when an underground limestone cavern collapsed (possibly earthquake, or subsidence due to a change in the water table level). We could walk right into the cavern. The city probably had fewer than 100 residents, but was surrounded by numerous campsites used by camel trains. Next we drove back down into the fog to visit the tomb of Prophet Job. In the evening Colin took me to the Hilton for dinner. We ate at the bbq restaurant is open air and overlooks the ocean, a lovely evening. Shukran habibi.

Monday - Drove around town trying to find the Tomb of Nabi Imran, it isn't marked on the road and the maps provided were totally confusing. Anyway we eventually found it, thanks to the hire car guy who thought we were picking him up to check the mileage and return the car, but was surprised to find that he was coming with us on a scenic tour of the Islamic sites of Salalah township. Back to the tomb, Nabi Imran was, depending on who you ask, either a local holy man or the father of the Virgin Mary or maybe the father of Moses. The grave is nearly 60 feet long because, depending on who you ask, either they don't know exactly where he is buried so the tomb is a person wide by extra long to cover all possible places or the Koran states that in the beginning humans were 60ft tall.
There's an excellent site with details of many of the sacred sites in the Middle East here.

With the hire car guy still in the back of the car, we did a short drive to see the Prophet Saleh's camel footprints. The rock containing the footprints is guarded by a security bloke wearing dishdash and with a rifle over his shoulder. It’s believed that the Prophet Saleh's she-camel was killed at that spot by the Prophet's opponents and afterwards her footprints were miraculously left imprinted in the rock.

We eventually headed to the airport, released the car hire company guy and caught our flight back to Dubai.

Friday, 27 July 2007

A weekend down by the beach

Its been the 'weeks from hell' since I came back from the UK and this weekend my habibi and I were having some quality time at the Al Hamra Fort Hotel in Ras al Khaimah. RAK is another of the emirates about 1.5 hours drive from Dubai. The hotel itself is large and spread out along the seafront. Lots of things to do, I had my first attempt at jet skiing which was so much fun, like a motorbike only wet, I have to work on my cornering technique but in a straight line going flat out is great! After that, we took a laser out for a sail and it promptly sank. A sort of shipwreck. One of the hotel staff came out on a jetski to check on us and asked if we wanted to swim to shore. He was scowling so much that I picked up that the appropriate response was 'yes' so we swam back across the lagoon to shore. Once we got back to shore, we sat under a beach umbrella on our own private piece of beach for several hours reading the books we'd both bought down with us - Colin's reading 'Living with a legend' by Bev Brock about Peter Brock and I'm reading a book on Elizabeth I by Peter Starkey.
Our room at the hotel was huge with a lovely garden terrace. On our trip back we took the Audi for a drive over towards Fujeirah. Lots of fun. Love that car.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

The world revolves around scones.

Better than nothing I guess:
Every morning I go to one of the coffee shops in BurJuman Mall to get coffee (no such thing as a flat white here, you have to ask for an 'Americano with milk'). This particular coffee shop is the only place in the area to sell scones. As you know, I am a total scone-aholic, keep your haute cuisine, there's nothing better than a hot, fluffy scone with jam and cream and a decent coffee on the side. My kids will talk of trips from Sydney to Brisbane which always had to go via Glen Innes to visit the Clocktower Coffee Lounge to partake of their ace cheese scones. Anyway back to the story, each morning I buy a scone from this joint in BurJuman. Each day they give it to me in a paper bag with a small pack of Anchor butter, a small pot of jam and a plastic knife and fork. Fairly early on I asked them to only give me butter and no jam but one of the guys told me it was 'company policy' to supply jam with every scone. As a result I now have a drawer in my desk that is full of little pots of strawberry jam stacked 3 or 4 high. Once I dared to ask them not to give me a fork every damn time and I tried to explain that I really only needed a knife. And what happened? For the rest of the week they gave me only a plastic spoon. Have you ever tried eating a scone with a spoon? So I admitted defeat and told them that a knife and fork was fine and since then all has been well in 'scone land'.

Friday, 29 June 2007

A week in England and France

Storm clouds over St Mere Eglis in Normandy, France.

Isn't there a poem that drivels on about "Oh to be in England now that summertime is here..." What total loser wrote that I wonder? It was raining lightly when we arrived and for the rest of our trip it either had just stopped raining or it was just about to start. We'd flown from Dubai to London Heathrow on Virgin. The flight was fine and although the entertainment selection couldn't rank with that offered by Emirates, at least Virgin doesn't let passengers go hungry (see my post of July '06). There was a full lunch, a fruit and bikkies run mid-flight and then a light 'afternoon tea' type meal an hour or so before landing.

We picked up the rental car which was a Ford Focus not a Nissan Sunny thank heavens. Colin connected the GPS and we drove to Terry's place in Somerset which took about 2.5 hours, during which the rain varied between light showers and torrential downpours. Terry's place is in Somerset, out in the country at the foot of the Quantocks. The surrounding roads are mostly tiny lanes often only one car wide, with high hedges on both sides. Many of the houses in the local villages have thatched roofs.

Headed to Goodwood for a day at the 'Festival of Speed' held in the grounds of Goodwood House. Petrol head heaven! Huge grounds with a hill climb from the entry gates up past the grand house and further up the hill to the "top paddock" which is bigger than a lot of country towns in NZ. Walked up to the rally section through the forest, though unfortunately it started to pour while we were up there.

The event was really well organised. To get people down from the top paddock there were tractor rides down the hill past the Dakkar race cars that were giving rides to some of the more thrillseeking punters. Down came more rain, resulting in thick mud that even made the tractor trailer slide sideways. After a fantastic day at Goodwood (and having seen a new HSV in the carpark) we drove down to Portsmouth. We stayed at the Marriott which was a huge rip off and also had the most annoying automatic lift voice in all creation. In the evening we had a drink at the Ship Anson an old pub on the Portsmouth waterfront next to the Naval Dockyard. My mother used to go there when she was a Wren during the war. We then walked along the road and had dinner at the Lady Hamilton another old pub.

Went to see my Uncle Ted who's now in his 80s, then back down to Portsmouth for a quick trip round the historic dockyard. We went through the "Warrior" past the "Victory" and then to see the "Mary Rose". More rain. Dropped off the hire car then walked over to the ferry terminal to catch our ferry to Cherbourg in France. The announcer on the ferry advised us that it was going to be choppy. I thought of 'Cook Strait choppy' which means the boat would have been rearing up and then plunging down like the first scenes from "Warship". It wasn't anything like that at all, it was hard to stand up straight but nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. The announcements were given first in French and then in English. The announcer's English sounded like the policemen from "Allo Allo" and when as part of the announcement he said "Leezen carefully...." then was almost a cry of "I vill say theeese only once.......". Terry and Pauline picked us up from the ferry at the other end. Staying in small country cottage near the village of St Sauvier about 40 minutes drive from Cherbourg.

First stop today was the small town of St Mere Eglise which was the first town liberated as part of the D Day landings. On the morning of the landings before the main force landed, the Airborne Rangers parachuted in to secure the town. One of US soldiers was trapped when his parachute became entangled on the church spire. He hung there in the dark unable to free himself and was shot when the sun rose and he was spotted. A model of the soldier and his parachute now hangs from the spire as a memorial and its become quite a tourist attraction. On to Bayeaux to see the tapestry (1066 and all that), then headed for the nearest pattisere for coffee and croissants then a drive to the coast to Arromanches to see the D Day beaches. The remains of some of the equipment remains on the beaches even after 60 years and the hulks of the ships that were sunk off the beach to form the base for the wharf are still visible. The museum that overlooks the beach has a good model which explains how the artificial harbour was constructed and there's also a movie. After that we drove out to one of the WWII cemetries which has an excellent museum and presentation on the US involvement in the D Day landings. All the time it rained constantly.

Today Terry took us for a drive to the Atlantic Coast to Mont St Michel which is rocky island approx 1 kilometre off the coast. Up until recently it was joined to the mainland by a thin strip of land that appeared only at high tide. The abbey was consecrated in 708AD. It was deconsecrated following the French Revolution and then used as a prison. Its since returned to church control and has been almost fully restored. We then drove up the coast and then back to St Sauvier. In the evening we all had dinner at Donjon, a family run restaurant in Briquebec the nearest town to the cottage. On the way back to the cottage we visited the site of General Patton's camp used during the advance following the D Day invasion. There is a well preserved Sherman tank there but not much else. Il fait quel temps ?
D'habitude,il pleut.

Ferry back to Portsmouth then caught the train to London. Took a taxi to the hotel which was in the East End near Aldgate East tube station. Dinner in the Hoop and Grapes, the nearest pub. Colin had decent sausages so he was happy. Still raining.

Bought a tube day pass. Did a bit of shopping in Oxford St including at Foyles the bookshop. It stopped raining, halle-bloody-lujah! Had lunch in Soho, back to the hotel to drop off the shopping. Tube to Westminster and a visit to Churchill's war cabinet rooms under the Government offices and the Churchill museum next door. Walked to the Houses of Parliament with a quick view of 10 Downing Street. Walked over the Thames on the Lambeth Bridge then along the South Bank to Westminster Bridge and back over the Thames. A quick visit to Westminster Abbey then caught the Tube to Tower Hill. Had dinner in the Minories, a pub which is built into an arch under a railway bridge. Then to Tower Hill station to go on the "Jack the Ripper" walking tour. This was interesting even though there really isn't anything to see as few of the old buildings from the time still exist, the East End having suffered greatly during the WWII bombings of London. Even some of the roads from the time have disappeared. Still it was all in the telling, and our guide Angela did a great job. Some of the people on the walk started out with an almost romanticised image of the Ripper but this was quickly dispelled as the morbid gruesomeness of the killings was described in great detail. That part of London has undergone huge change since I lived in London in the late 70s-early 80s. It used to be almost a 'no go'area back then but now its being gentrified and is a very popular area with lots of restaurants and pubs.

Off to the South Bank again to Shakepeare's Globe Theatre a faithful recreation of how an Elizabethan theatre would have looked though not specifically the Globe as all plans of the original theatre have been lost. Thatched roof, bench seating though you can hire cushions, and cheap tickets in the standing area in the pit directly in front of the stage. The people in the standing area are known by the same name as in Elizabethan times, "groundlings". We were lucky enough to see the actors in full costume rehearsing and also to hear a few pieces played by the musicians who provide the Tudor music during performances. From there up to St Pauls where I was surprised to find that God's servants now charge 9 pounds ($27 approx) to see His church, so we didn't go in. Wandered down to the London Wall area and went to the Museum of London which, unlike St Pauls, had free entry and was absolutely fascinating, wish I'd been able to spend longer there but it was time to head for the airport for the flight back to Dubai.

The next chapter should be called "Heathrow Hell" and it deserves its own blog entry.

The photos are here

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Straight shooting in RAK

Last Friday Colin told me he had a surprise for me. Off we went down Emirates Road, passing all the places I thought could be ‘it’ until we got to the RAK Shooting Club. Cool, I haven’t done any shooting since I left Aus so this was really a lovely surprise.
By following the sound of gunfire we found the ‘range’ such as it was. It was like an old pre-fab classroom, the people shooting were leaning against the inside walls and firing out of the windows. The club uses 9mm handguns and the vibrations each time one was fired were really painful to the ears. A pile of earmuffs lay on a table so we grabbed a pair each pronto, unfortunately this made explaining that we wanted to shoot rather difficult but the message got through.
To my total amazement, both the guns and the ammo were kept in an unlocked wheelie-box near the door. Nobody asked for ID, we just strolled in, said we wanted to have a go and the guy took out a couple of Heckler and Koch 9mms and handed them over to us with a box of 50 bullets each. We were given a very brief description of what to do, and after following this procedure you sort of waved the gun around out through the window and this comprised the ‘safety check’. At the St Ives Pistol Club in Sydney, safety was of paramount importance and its what I’m used to, so the casual approach at RAK was a bit disconcerting.
Also taking part in the same session was a young Indian guy who was just learning and at the other end of the row two Russian guys whose shooting was alarmingly accurate!
Unfortunately there was a technical problem (the wire that pulled the target rack along had broken) and every single gun club employee including several carrying the Dubai All Purpose Maintenance Kit (a hammer and a bent screwdriver) disappeared out onto the range to do battle with the errant wire and pulleys. This left us with absolutely no supervision. We could have wandered off with the 2 guns, 100 bullets (maybe even more from out of the wheelie box) and there was nobody to stop us, except maybe the Russians but they probably had the same idea. Best of all we wouldn’t have paid for any of it.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Bellydancing in Dubai

On Thursday night a group of us went to watch Soirse (Soraya) dance at the Carlton Towers Hotel here in Dubai. Soirse and I worked for the same law firm in Australia, she was in the Melbourne office and I was in Sydney. The Maddocks Mafia strikes again! She’s a fabulous dancer, performing in restaurants and clubs in Melbourne but now she’s taken the plunge to come to the Middle East and work as a dancer here. So far she’s had contracts in Bahrain, Morocco and now in Dubai with another contract in Ras al Khaimah starting next month inshallah.

Soirse does 2-4 shows a night, seven nights a week at the Carlton Towers. Eeek, who drafted that Enterprise Agreement? As it was Thursday, the last day of our working week we decided go to her “early” show at 11:15pm in the hotel’s Arabic nightclub. There’s a band at the nightclub so it was an opportunity for my students to see a quality dancer working with live music. When we arrived at 10:15 the place was totally empty and even when she danced the place was only a quarter full. But at around midnight the crowds started flocking in and by 1am it was packed. Mostly locals in the audience, lots of groups of men but also mixed groups with the ladies in hijab and abaya. The strange thing (to me anyway) is that in the Gulf nobody gets up to dance. How anyone can stay sitting down while this fabulous music is playing just beats me. If you looked around the audience though, you’d see that everyone was grooving in their seats; the ladies were ‘getting down while in a seated position’ and even the local guys in dishdashes were doing the Gulf Head Nod and twirling their worry beads to the rhythm. (What can I say except that you should never believe anyone who tells you that expats are the only consumers of alcohol in the UAE , enough said.) The band at the club plays all night with 2 shows by Soirse and performances by a couple of singers. Soirse does her early show then does another performance at the club at around 2am.

We left the nightclub and moved on to catch Soirse’s 1:15am show at the Greek Taverna which is in the same hotel. A costume change and dancing to CD this time. Different vibe completely to the nightclub. The taverna was just like Scorpios in Annandale where I was the dancer for ages, or the Greek Typhoon in Sydney. The audience was made up of Greeks or people who were “Arabic other than Gulf”. It was great. The music started and within a nano-second there were guys on the floor dancing and before long everyone was up dancing and having a ball. The girl singer did a bracket of debke numbers which of course went down a treat with the Lebanese in the audience. There was also the obligatory drunk Russian woman in fur topped boots who insisted on doing a solo 'dance' performance right in front of the girl singer.

Great night, eventually arriving home sometime after 3am - its been a long time since I've done that. There are some photos here.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Aerosmith in Dubai

Photo: Gulf News
Aerosmith were 'in the house' at the Exiles Rugby Ground last night.

Expected the usual Dubai traffic nightmare so, as the concert started at 10pm we left home at about 7:30pm. Murphy’s Law, there was hardly any traffic, the trip only took about 35 minutes and there was heaps of space available in the club carpark. Although it was early, queues were already starting to form for food and drink. The caterers were running the system where people queued up to buy a ticket then had to queue up again somewhere else to get their food/beer (Budweiser beer in red plastic cups). Even early in the evening it was obvious that this system was not going to work, and subsequently I’ve heard many complaints about long delays. This has really annoyed a lot of people as it was 44 degrees during the day and wasn’t much cooler in the evening and the security guards confiscated all outside food and drink when you entered the ground including bottles of water. One person recounted that it took 45 minutes for him to go through the queue-token-queue-purchase system just to buy 2 bottles of water. We snuck our water in, thank goodness for being a bit older and looking 'respectable’!

We were in the standing area behind the moshpit and the heat was absolutely suffocating. The band came on about 30 minutes late and played for 90 minutes. I have to say it, I was disappointed, although the music sounded good and they played all their biggest songs (opened with ‘Love in an Elevator’). For some reason, they just didn’t connect with the audience. It really seemed to be a performance where they were going through the motions and striking the rock star poses. Sadly, while Mick Jagger still seems to be able to ‘do the business’, Steve Tyler has become a caricature of himself. He did the usual macho rock star ‘why don’t you come backstage’ thing to a pretty girl in the mosh pit and interestingly the crowd reaction was more “eeuww” than “phewrr”. His voice is also showing the signs of years of abuse. “Dream On”, great song, is a challenge and he pulled it off last night, but I wonder if his voice will hold out for the entire tour.

Like a lot of people, the overwhelming heat finally got to us and we left before the end of the show. I didn’t get to hear “Janey’s got a gun” or “Walk this way” as they played them last. (Many in the audience possibly wouldn't know that WTW was around before RunDMC.)

Maybe the tour arrangers had no choice but, for Dubai, the show was a month too late, the weather has changed, and it's just too hot. The band had cold air on them the whole time pumped out through large fans (mechanical ones not human ones) but for the audience it was almost unbearable. Someone asked me "Were people dancing?" No way! Dancing would only have made you hotter.

Dubai needs an arena for outdoor shows, there are arenas being built for everything else so why not a performance venue?

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Jebel Hafeet

Last Thursday evening we headed down to Abu Dhabi for a weekend of relaxation and quality time. We stayed the first night at the Mercure hotel which is on top of a mountain called Jebel Hafeet (‘jebel’ means mountain in Arabic). It was approx 1.5 hours drive from Dubai and I have to say that I was really looking forward to getting out of Dubai for some R&R. By the time we got there it was dark, but the road up the side of the mountain was well lit with spotlights highlighting the cliffs, no pretence of energy conservation here, and there were many places to park and take in the views down to the plain below with the lights of Al Ain in the distance. Photos are here.

The Mercure hotel sits on a cliff top with stunning views out over the UAE and Oman. The hotel has a hanging garden type theme, the carpets in the hallways have a river stone pattern, the walls in the corridors have jungle carpet on them and the open areas of the corridors have hanging vines from floor to ceiling. The rooms are big and have a balcony but unfortunately the room we were given was right underneath the nightclub. Might as well have moved the bed onto the dance floor it was that loud. The Philipino band in the nightclub wasn’t bad though and they did a pretty good version of “I will survive” which earnt them a big cheer from the crowd who by 1 or 2 am seemed to be really getting into the swing of things! While this was going on above us, from the hotel's pool area came the warbling of a trio who were playing a full repertoire of torturous MOR favourites; lots of BeeGees ballads and heaven help me, “Feeeeeelings, nothing more than feeeeelings”. That’s the sort of music that drives sensitive souls to homicide.

We spent the next morning by the pool dozing to recover from our involuntary Night on Disco Island. Later we went up to the top of the mountain where there is a large car park and restaurant. Its very popular with local people who come up there as it’s a lot cooler than down on the plain. Near the top of the mountain is the huge palace belonging to Sheikh Kalifa the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. The staff quarters alone are huge and then there’s a long driveway lined with arches which winds up to the main house. We then drove down the mountain taking in the superb views and went to the Intercontinental Hotel at Al-Ain for the night. We spent the evening at a bbq with friends who live in Al-Ain. They bemoaned the state of SA rugby, Colin bemoaned the state of Aus rugby and I was obnoxiously confident that the AB’s are going to win the World Cup! (They’d better or I can never show my face in Al-Ain again…….)

We spent the following morning reading and, after retrieving the Prado, the afternoon was spent by the pool at the Intercon. Lovely facilities, well equiped gym and a pool designed like a rock pool with a swim-up bar that serves very tasty Virgin Pinacoladas.

In the late afternoon we returned to Dubai, looked at an Audi RS6 for sale out at Al Aweer, drooled over the other outrageous cars on sale out there (photos are here) and then went to see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Gold Class, a first for me, and it’s the only way to go…… The movie is enjoyable but probably about half an hour too long and there were some side stories that really didn’t add anything to the film itself but that’s an extra half hour in Gold Class so there’s nothing wrong with that. Great special effects and Keith Richards is perfect as Johnny Depp’s Dad.

Aerosmith play here on Thursday at the Exiles Rugby Club, should be good.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Dubai: Where the car is king

Photo - Gulf News

The first part of the Metro rail system which is under construction in Dubai is due to open in 2009, inshallah, and it can't happen soon enough. At the moment getting around Dubai is a nightmare. The car is king and the roads can't cope with the volume of traffic. Everywhere is a wall to wall traffic jam, the BurJuman roundabout is one of the scariest places on earth particularly if you're a pedestrian, public transport is virtually non-existent. Taxis refuse to take passengers because according to a couple of drivers who've refused to take me over the Creek, they end up spending too long in traffic jams, (Ha? I don't get that reasoning either. The meter is ticking while they're stuck in the queue, the longer the delay the more they get paid). Of course, that's if you can even get a taxi! There is a bus system but a Filipina workmate tells me that the bus drivers are *really* scary. There are only a few seats at the front of the buses where women are allowed to sit and if those seats are full when the bus arrives at your stop, and you're a woman, then you won't be allowed to get on. There may be spare seats in the 'mens' section but women cannot sit there. Women are also not allowed to stand in the buses, even if they could stand in the part of the aisle that passes through the 'women only' seating. Men would have to brush past any standing woman as they go the mens seats, haram! The buses are seldom used by expats and never used by 'locals'. So the car rules. As a result of the traffic problems, people often don't go out in the evening as it takes so long to get from one part of the city to another. One evening it took us 2.5 hours in the rush hour to get from Bur Dubai to Deira - the return trip at 1am took 10 minutes. I have a few photos of the construction work on the Metro here.

Have you ever thought the Bayeaux Tapestry looked liked like a cartoon? You did? Then you'll love this brilliant piece of work on YouTube.

It's a strange thing, but in Dubai during summer everyone turns off their hot water systems. The water that comes out of the cold tap is warm enough to shower in.

Soirse (Soraya) is safely here after finishing her contract at the VIP Club in Casablanca, Morocco. She now has a two month contract at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Dubai, followed by at least a month at a hotel in Ras al Khaimah (another of the Emirates). It's been great to catch up on all the news from both the work-world and the parallel universe that is bellydance. On the subject of b/d, it might come as a surprise, it is to me, that I'm teaching again. Just a couple of students at the moment but with so many other people on the "If you ever start teaching give me a call" list that I could have classes every night. But, been there, done that and we know that burn out is not a pretty thing don't we?

And now something know who you are....
Q - How many emos does it take to change a lightbulb?
A - None, they just sit in the dark and cry.

Monday, 7 May 2007

From A to Bih: A trip down the Wadi

On Friday a group of us did the drive through Wadi Bih, 6 cars, all 4x4s. We started the day by meeting at the mall in RAK (Ras al Khaimah) for coffee then headed out. The route which is shown in the map at the top, was from Dubai to Dibba in the emirate of Fujairah on the East Coast. The photos are here.

The drive through the wadi from one side to the other takes about 3 and a half hours. There are some steep climbs which give spectacular views and the highest point is around 1200m. Some parts of the wadi are really narrow with high cliffs towering over the road. When it floods the water rushes down the wadi carrying everything away with it.

There's a UAE checkpoint on the way into the wadi. As usual we all had to hand over our passports and our names were written into a book that's kept in the little office building. This is ok and we all sat in our air-con cars (it was 40 outside) and admired the barricade arm across the road which is weighed down with rocks. In a new twist however each car was searched. The 'educated guess' is that they were looking for contraband being taken out of the UAE, or maybe the jewellery that was stolen in The Great Wafi Mall Gem Heist. We all had to get out of the cars while the checkpoint guys made a very cursery search and looked in the glovebox of each car. The irony was that at the Omani checkpoint only Colin had to show his passport which apparently was good enough for all 5 cars and they let us through.

After the drive through Wadi Bih we arrived at Dibba on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. While to the passing tourist it looks like one small town, Dibba is in fact three separate villages; Dibba Bayah, ruled by the Sultanate of Oman, Dibba Muhallab, ruled by the Emirate of Fujairah and Hisn Dibba, ruled by the Emirate of Sharjah. Dibba is famous as the site of one of the biggest battles in the Ridda Wars. The Ridda or Apostacy Wars were a series of military campaigns to ensure the reconquest of Arabia by Muslim armies in the generation after the death of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Many tribes that had converted to Islam during the Prophet's lifetime did not feel bound to the new religion following his death. Tribes in the Dibba area along with many in Oman had even decided to follow another prophet named Laqit (which oddly enough means 'bastard' in Arabic). In 632AD, Caliph Abu Baker who was the elected successor to the Prophet (pbuh) sent armies from Mecca to return the entire Arabian peninsula to the Muslim fold. The Muslim army reached Dibba in 633AD and a great battle ensued. There is a cemetery in the plain behind Dibba which local legend says contains the graves of up to 10,000 dead from that battle.

We had lunch at the new Rotana hotel in Fujairah, very nice. There was a motorcycle club having their anniversary run there. In Dubai even bikies stay in 5 star hotels.

In the afternoon we went for a swim at the beach at Fujairah and saw schools of tiny yellow and black striped fish, later watching the men pulling in the fishing net on to the beach, only a few fish so there wasn't much return for such a lot of work. There is a fish market in Fujairah which opens about 4pm and for a few dirhams the stall owners will fillet your choice of fish for you.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

A life on the ocean wave...........

We did the dinner cruise on the Bateau Dubai last Thursday evening. The Bateau is a large boat with glass sides and glass roof that does a 4 hour cruise up and down the Creek in Dubai. The service is great, the maitre d remembered me from a previous visit a month or so ago. The food is sensational, its a 4 course dinner with 4-5 choices for each course, the hammour (local fish) is divine and the chocolate dessert is worth the cost of the cruise alone. Alcohol isn't served until after the boat has left the dock but the waiters bring round fruit cocktails prior to departure. We stood on the deck outside between courses and watched the world...and the jellyfish...go by.

Friday morning we hit the beach for the first swim for this summer. It was a quick one as it was around midday and the sun was fierce. The water temp was 29 degrees but weirdly enough it seemed to be refreshingly cool. Later in the summer the water temp reaches 35 degrees plus and going for a swim is like walking into a warm bath.
A local developer has plans for a long section of the beach to be shut off from the public so that it can be built on. An ugly corrogated iron fence was erected along the beach line which caused a real public outcry and for once expats and locals were all on the same page. There were articles in the papers, lots of comment on the radio, petitions etc. The developers were unmoved, refusing to remove the fence until Sheik Mo himself stepped in and told them the fence had to come down which it did almost overnight. When Sheik Mo says "Make it happen", it happens! The beach will still be developed and the public will loose access but no doubt it will now be done piecemeal so the effect isn't so noticeable.

A Life on the Ocean Wave: A poem by Epes Sargent put to music by Henry Russell.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

ANZAC Day 2007


Haul hard on the ropes Gunners
stay close to the track
haul hard on the ropes Gunners
there's no turning back.

Sing your waiata Gunners
haul hard and sing
Taupiri's steep, Gunners
and the old women cling.

No more the fire missions Gunners
his time has come
halt at the top Gunners
turn his face to the sun.

Bury him deep Gunners
then shed a last tear
this chief now sleeps Gunners
as the evening draws near.

One last goodbye Gunners
his final rest
The Regiment's loss Gunners
he was one of our best.

RIP Bombardier R.M. Whitiora RNZA


Young man, you ask me who I am,
and why I wear this faded yellow ribbon...

I am the woman, who held your dying uncle's hand,
and wrote a letter once that broke your grandma's heart.

I am she, who met the 'Dust-Off' at the door,
and carried bloodied, broken bodies through to triage.

Then cut through muddied boots and bloody combat gear,
and washed away the blood and fear and jungle.

I kept the faith when even hope was lost,
and cried within, as young lives ebbed away.

Those hours when death, frosted dying eyes,
mine, was the last smile many young men saw.

I have the voice, that blinded eyes remember,
and the touch of reassurance through the pain.

In darkest night when combat would return,
it was my name that many soldiers called.

I have dressed their wounds, and wiped away their tears,
and often read them letters sent from mum.

I hugged them close, and willed each one my strength,
and smiled and prayed that each boy made it home.

And here today, you ask me who I am...
I am the Nurse, who served in Vietnam.

A tribute to Pam M-T and all the Kiwi Nurses

Both poems are from the Flak Jacket Collection by NZ poet and former soldier Mike Subritzky.