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.

Monday, 23 April 2007

A weekend in Oman

The photo is of Balat Sayt a village in the Omani mountains. All the photos are here but first the story:

We left Dubai late on Thursday afternoon, crossed the Omani border and stayed the night in Ibri. Ibri is the second largest city in Oman and is about a 3.5 hr drive from Dubai.

The next day Colin took me to see the pre-historic tombs at Al Ayn. He's seen them several times before but I'm a first-timer and they amazed me. The first view of the tombs is spectacular, twenty-one beehive shapes standing in a line on a ridge silhouetted against the imposing bulk of Jebel Misht. The tombs, which date from between 3,500BC to 2,500BC, were built using flat stones that have been layered one on top of the other, almost like weaving. Nothing has been used to hold the stones together, no mud to act like cement or anything like that, the beehive is held together by its own weight. Even after all the centuries several of the tombs are intact, though others have succumbed to the ravages of time and have fallen over into well organised piles of rocks. There is a small opening at the front of each beehive and I was able to crawl into the largest tomb and stand up inside.

Wadi Dham was the next stop, another new place for me. We walked a short way up the wadi but I wimped out of walking too far as it was hot, damn hot. We stopped off next at Jabrin Castle. It was closed because it was Friday but that was ok as we've both been there before.

On to Misfat Al Abreyeen, a village built on the side of a cliff. I was there a couple of years ago with my brother (kia ora Bro) then a drive up into the mountains to the top of Jebel Shams arriving after dark. Jebel Shams is the highest point in Oman (3075m). Spent the night at the camping ground that has bedouin style tents, very nice. After the 40 degree temperatures on the plains it was a shock to the system when later in the evening the temperature dropped to 16.

The next morning we went along the top of Jebel Shams to see the Wadi Nakhr Gorge which is known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia for good reason. It must be thousands of feet deep and being the Middle East there are no safety barriers or anything wussy like that! No, on second thoughts, at the most popular viewing spot there's a bit of wire half heartedly strung across a small section of the edge. The edge is a vertical drop. Misjudge it and over you stop China! I walked over to the edge (not the wussy part with the wire) and jumped up and down a few times which seemed to get Colin's heart rate up a bit, can't understand why. A short way along is the village of Al Khateem and a track that goes round the lip of the canyon and ends at an abandoned village but being pressed for time we had to move on (meaning that I wimped out again).

Next was a drive on a rough goat track road to the village of Balad Sayt. The trip itself was only about 40 kms but it was hard driving all the way. The road was like Horsemans Road in Waitakere before they did it up, but without idiot sheep making sneak attacks from the bushes. Anyway as usual I'm off on a tangent, so let's get back to the story. Colin was going to Balad Sayt on a mission. Last year he and his son Daniel were exploring the village when they met an elderly gent named Hadth bin Nasser. They took some photos of Hadth that Colin's since had enlarged, printed and framed so the plan was to take them up to Balad Sayt to deliver to Hadth. The village is very old and the 'streets' are about as wide as a suburban footpath at best and at their narrowest about the width of a house hallway. There's no vehicle access naturally, cars are parked down in the wadi and people walk into the village from there. On the walk up to the Hadth's house we met a local youngster named Saud who spoke very good English. Saud rounded up Hadth's grandson and they showed us the way. Hadth was so pleased to see Colin that he ran outside and just about jumped into his arms. Saud translated for everyone which was a God-send (also meant that he'll be the centre of attention for days as the boy who spoke to The Foreign Visitors, so it's good for him too). After we had coffee, oranges and dates with Hadth, Saud took us to see his school. Saud told me that there's no medical clinic in his village and when I asked him what he wants to be when he grows up, he said without hesitation "A doctor, so I can come back to Balad Sayt and look after the people".

From Balad Sayt we...and when I say ’we’ I mean Colin...drove down the valley to the entrance to Snake Gorge where we stopped for coffee (but no scones). Along the way I noticed what looked like piles of timber lying at the bottom of the cliffs, but it's not timber it's rock that has fragmented off the cliffs. The land formations in Oman are fascinating. In some places the earth has been squeezed into shapes resembling rolling waves of different types of rock. A bit like a bowl of cake mix after someone's passed a knife through it. There was a place where a huge cliff of black rock suddenly changed direction and appeared to plummet headlong into the surrounding countryside, it made me think of the Titanic's last dive. It's hard to contemplate the power of the forces required to manipulate the earth into such torturous shapes. Ok enough from the amateur geologist, sorry Ian, I should leave it to the experts shouldn't I?

Down to the Batinah Plain and following the wadi, which is also the road. There’s been heavy flooding in the area recently and the damage has been quite extensive. As you'll see from the photos, the water level was high and the debris that was washed down can be seen in the branches of trees, and in the wiring of power pylons.

From there it was back to Dubai, though in an indicator of what could be waiting for us in the Gulf region this summer, it was still 40 degrees at 5pm. To quote Colin "It's going to be really hot when summer comes...."

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Asked to leave (and not by a bouncer for once)

Last night one of the building security guys came round to deliver a letter saying that the building I'm living in is being converted to hotel apartments. My one year lease here expires in September and the letter says the landlord will only renew it for another month after that, so I have to be out by mid-October. One of my neighbours told me that the building was originally built to be used as hotel apartments but then the landlord discovered that, at that time anyway, he could make more money by renting to individual longer term tenants. That must have been a while ago, I've met a couple on the 7th floor who've been living in the building for four or five years.

The tenancy laws here changed last year so a tenant who signed a new lease (not renewal) in 2006 cannot have their rent increased for 12 months. I'm one of those people as I signed my lease in September 2006, so to get around the new laws the landlord has sent out the letter saying that he is changing the building use and that he will not be renewing my lease. It's all rubbish of course as the only tenants who received this letter are people like me who moved in here in 2006. Meanwhile, new tenants are moving into the building with 12 month leases, at greatly increased rents of course. The landlord will rent my place out to someone else no doubt after putting up the rent by 10,000AED. As the cynics in the expat community say, "Welcome to Dubai"! I'll check all this out with the gym regulars, even that ratbag who gets up extra early so he can beat me - at 6:15am - to the only operating treadmill. Fitness First in BurJuman opens next month, can't wait!

UPDATE: I met the new Aussie guy next door earlier this evening. He told me he's just signed a 12 months lease, so the landlord's story of converting the building into hotel apartments is obviously untrue (the rent he's paying is 10,000AED p.a. more than the previous tenants too). The system here of paying 3 months in advance and then giving the landlord post dated cheques for the rest is just insane. I've even heard of people who have been asked to pay an entire year's rent up front in one cheque. Some property gurus are predicting that with so many new apartment blocks opening up in the JBR area (Jumeirah Beach Residences), at the Marina and further along Sheikh Zayed Rd, the demand for older rental properties in the inner city area will drop markedly. Landlords are being greedy and grabbing every dirham they can while there is still demand for their properties. The block I live in is ok but starting to look past its 'use by' date. It can't compare with the new blocks a bit further out. Once the Metro rail line opens in 2009, transport - hopefully - won't be such an issue and more people will move out to the new blocks.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

The mountain houses of Wadi Muweilah

Yesterday I went on the UAE Architectural Heritage Society field trip to see some mountain houses at Wadi Muweilah in Ras al Khaimah. RAK is one of the emirates that forms the UAE. We started off by visiting a pre-historic tomb in Wadi Suq, then drove into the mountains to the deserted village at Wadi Muweilah. Most of the houses in the village date back to the 17th-18th centuries though some were older. The houses were built when people wanted to grow wheat and barley to sell to the expanding city of Julfar on the plains below. One of the fields is still being used to grow wheat, the photo of the scarecrow wearing a dishdash was taken there. Though the Hajar Mountains are barren and rocky, the people constructed terraced fields for crops. They enclosed areas of ground with rock walls and then filled the enclosed area with a foundation of rock and then up to half a metre of silt. The silt had to be carried in from either the plains or anywhere in the wadi where it could be found. The number of hours and the sheer hard manual labour it would have taken to build just one field is staggering. The people may have had a few donkeys but otherwise all the work would have been done by hand in the crushing heat. The people also built irrigation channels and we saw cisterns which have been dug into the rock to store whatever water was available. The trip was led by the resident archaeologiest from the RAK Dept of Antiquities who also showed us around RAK Fort which is being extensively restored. The building reminded me of Taqa Castle in Salalah. The photos are here

We then did a quick visit to the Blue Souq in Sharjah. It's an attractive building in a Persian style with blue tiles on the outside and domes on the roof. Inside, the souq is a tourist trap place, usual pashminas, gold, electronics and sales shit, sorry talk. I get irritated with shop guys who take one look at me and immediately double the price. The item I was looking for cost 250AED down one end of the souq and 550AED down the other. So, no business was done.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Lost and found

Today's experience is so typical of life in Dubai. As I've mentioned before, there are no street addresses here so directions are given by reference to local landmarks. In Dubai if you ask someone where they live, they might say something like, "In the Old Pakistani Consulate area, in the building with blue shutters opposite the mosque." (The Pakistani Consulate moved out of the area about 10 years ago though.) Sometimes it all gets farcical. As an example I recently phoned for directions to a company office and I was told that they were located "next to where the Oasis Centre used to be". Used to be?! For heaven's sake, the Oasis Centre burnt down in 2005 which was before I arrived here and also, this being Dubai, there's probably another building on the site, so how does "where the Oasis Centre used to be" help me find them today? There *are* signs with street numbers on them but they only add to the confusion. The city is divided into nine sectors and each sector is then divided into a number of communities. There are currently 129 communities in Dubai. The streets within each community are then numbered. Unfortunately the street numbers are repeated in each community, so for example there's a 22b Street in Community 317 and also in every other community in Dubai.

Anyway, today I needed to find the offices of Royal Jordanian Airlines. I called them and a nice man told me the offices were "in Deira (the suburb), past Dnata (a landmark office building) behind the Nissan showroom." While that's lovely, it's a big area and he didn't tell me the name of the office building they were in, so they could have been anywhere. Hmm, time to think laterally. So I got onto the Nissan website, found a list of their showrooms in the Middle East and, thank you Nissan, they had a map of how to get to their showroom in Dubai. I used the map while I sat in the taxi cruising round the streets of Deira behind the Nissan showroom until the driver spotted the Royal Jordanian sign.

Once I'd finished at Royal Jordanian (nice people, very helpful) I headed back to the main road to get a cab back to work. On my way I walked past the Lamborghini service centre. Parked across the footpath blocking my way was a red Lambo and leaning against it was a man, my age, too much time on a sunbed, open shirt, chest hair, pointy shoes, you get the picture. He looked me up and down, smiled at me, ok he leered at me, and said "Madame" in that sleezy "I am such a man" voice most women have heard at some time in their life and wanted to puke. Anyway, I gave him a look that said words to the effect of "You and your stupid car are blocking my footpath mate. Stupid Lambo. You're a dime a dozen mate - give me a SS any day of the week." At that point he smiled at me and no joke, he had a gold filling in his front teeth. Spare me, I'd just been leered at by a living caricature. I flounced off down the street giggling to myself. I was wearing my flared skirt so I knew my flounce looked ok from the back. Yes believe it or not, since coming to Dubai I now do a passable 'Madame flounce' even in 3 inch heels.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007


We arrived in Amman the capital of Jordan on Thursday evening and after checking into the hotel went from a walk. After the unrelenting flatness of Dubai it was quite a surprise to be walking up and down hills. It was so quiet walking round in the evening, not too many cars on the road. We were aiming to reach the Citadel which is a Roman ruin near the centre of Amman but in an example of my dubious navigation skills (my kids reckon I couldn't find my way out of a paper bag even if I had a map and a torch) we ended up in the souq area. We seemed to be the only non-locals around. Main thing I noticed was that there were so many shoe stalls that it should have been called The Shouq also lots of knock off DVDs including most of the IAMED series and plenty of WWE discs for 1/2 a Jordanian dinar each which is about $2.50 AUD.

Next day on to Jerash to see the Roman ruins there. The heyday of Jerash was in the third century when it had a population of around 20,000. Emperor Hadrian (he of Hadrian's Wall in England) visited and an imposing arch was built his honour. The arch is the first thing you see on entering Jerash. We walked through the site up to the theatre where stage shows were held 'back in the day'. Much restoration work has been done on the theatre and we could walk right up to the back row, very steep stairs and not a good place for anyone with vertigo! The acoustics in the theatre were amazing and even from way up in the "Gods" things said at stage level were quite audible. A bagpipe and drums trio came out and played, yes they play the bagpipes here, but they're playing Arabic music. The musicians really got into it and, as is typical in the Middle East, where there's music there is a 100% chance of an outbreak of dancing - God, I love it here - almost immediately a group of local schoolkids got up to dance debke. One of the kids' mum who was doing escort duty with the school group (some things are the same the world over) got up and joined in. She was in full hijab, her face covered with a burqa but she was having a ball and the kids formed a circle and danced round her. The band then played "Scotland the Brave" and "Amazing Grace" for the tourists, all with a baladi rhythm! Then in a great musical irony, they played "Jesu joy of man's desiring" with a masmoudi rhythm, a surprising piece of music to hear I thought. Interesting dispute, the Scots say they invented the bagpipes and that the Arabs stole the idea (bagpipes are played in Jordan and Egypt and probably other countries in the ME) but the Arabs say the opposite. Why anyone would claim responsibility for such a thing baffles me!

We moved on to the amphitheatre where we watched a recreation of the sort of show that ancient Romans would have seen. We were sitting on the same seats that the Romans sat in nearly 2,000 years ago, watching guys from the Jordanian Army or Police going through their paces as gladiators, legionnaires and chariot racers. An actor dressed as the Roman governor walked round being the MC and explained what was happening. I had my photo taken with a couple of the legionnaires before the show (baksheesh had to pass hands of course). The chariot races were good to watch, got some good photos. Unfortunately we only had time to walk through a small part of what is a huge site.

On to Madaba to see the mosaics. Madaba is mentioned in the Bible as "Medeba" and has been inhabited for 4,000 years. It was ruled by just about every major civilisaton including of course the Romans but was abandoned in the 7th century after an earthquake and not reinhabited until the late 1800s. The mosaics were rediscovered when the new inhabitants were digging foundations for their houses. The mosaics themselves date back to when Madaba was an important Byzantine centre. The major mosaic is a map constructed around AD500 which shows all the major biblical locations in the Middle East with 157 captions in Greek. After seeing the map we went to see other mosaics in the Church of the Apostles and the archaeological park which displays mosaics recovered from various sites around the Madaba area. By that stage I have to confess to being "mosaiced out" so we sat at an outdoor table at a local coffee bar and ate toasted sandwiches.

From Madaba we drove up to Mt Nebo where, according to the Bible, Moses saw the Promised Land (Duet 32:49-50 for those who are interested). There is a church on the hill that Pope J-P II visited in 2000.

We stayed the night at Hammamat Ma'in which is a hot springs resort. Legend has it that King Herod used to go there. The hotel we stayed at is called Janna which is the Arabic word for paradise and it certainly lived up to its name; total luxury. There are water falls tumbling down the cliffs by the hotel, the only unusual thing is that the waterfalls are hot and so is the river they fall into. There's a river pool by the hotel for the use of guests and its completely natural, stones on the bottom, the hot river flows through it and its just great to soak in it. It was like the natural pools in Rotorua before they found out about meningacocal! We sat on the outdoor terrace in the evening, had a few quiet ales and watched the sun setting behind the hills.

Next day we passed the Dead Sea. I didn't go in for a float as the beaches we passed were all stones, quite a way off the road, covered with rubbish and really quite unappealing. On to Karak to see the huge Crusader castle, then to Petra arriving in the late afternoon. We spent all of the following day walking round Petra which was everything I hoped it would be plus some. Petra was the major city of the Nabateans, a nomadic tribe originally from Yemen who settled in Jordan around 600BC. Over the following 600 years they carved temples and tombs as well as an intricate system of water channels ('falaj') out of the solid sandstone rock of Petra. The Nabateans abandoned the Petra around 400AD but nobody really knows why. A truly magnificent site. The rock is a pink colour which changes shade as the sun moves, not without reason its known as the 'Rose-red City'. After a long day of sightseeing and being a good little Kiwi and Aussie, we naturally looked for the nearest pub. We found one close to the site entrance called the Cave Bar which really is in a cave. The first beer went down so fast it didn't even touch the sides. It was followed by a few more and a very smooth shisha, then back to the hotel for a hammam (Turkish bath and steam) and a massage of the tired feet. A fine way to end a wonderful day.

After two nights at Petra we moved on to Wadi Rum out in the desert. We stayed at Beit Ali which is a desert camp and did a 4 hour trip in a landrover with a local Bedouin guide to see some magnificent scenery. We also stopped at a couple of places used by TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) during his time in Jordan. No sand dunes like the desert in the UAE, all flat sand with step craggy rock hills jutting out but wonderful colours that change according to the angle of the sun. Really cold though.

Big police and military presence here, quite high profile which is totally different to Dubai. There are armed guards outside all the hotels and major building and on the roads there are Army checkpoints where all cars are stopped and they check IDs and ask where you're going. Sometimes they asked to see our passports and sometimes they didn't, I think a few of the Army guys pulled us over because business was slow and they just wanted a chat. Seemed to be a very conservative society compared to Dubai which seems like Sin City in comparison. However young women were very much in evidence and seemed to be active participants in education and tourism. Majority of ladies wear hijab but rather than wearing abayas like in the UAE most seemed to wear jelbab which is like a long trench coat in style but made of fabric. Everyone, female and male, young and old, appears to own a black leather jacket. Wael, what's with that? Is every Jordanian issued with a leather jacket at birth or something?

Pictures of the Jordanian monarch King Abdullah are everywhere, some show him wearing various military uniforms, some with Queen Rania, one with him on a motorbike for the younger generation, often the pictures are beside a portrait of his late father King Hussein who is almost revered in Jordan.

The next day we drove back to Amman on the desert highway to catch the plane back to Dubai. We could have spent a couple of weeks in Jordan just exploring, there is so much to see, particularly if you're interested in Crusader history, castles, forts and the desert. The people were friendly and hospitable, I've drunk more sweet, hot mint tea in the last 6 days than I have in the last 6 months! Music is great too.

The flight back went quickly and I knew I was back in Dubai when the taxi driver tried to rip Colin off for the trip from the airport to where he'd parked the car. Back to reality!

Lots of photos here.