Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Where's Miss Manners when you need her?

Here’s a question for the Miss Manners/Emily Post's amongst us: What is the etiquette when it comes to singing in the shower in a public place? No, its not me doing the singing, as most of you know my singing voice is registered with the UN as a Weapon of Mass Destruction, this is something that's come up at the gym. This is the same gym that has signs on the wall of the changing room asking that there be no nudity, how you achieve that in a shower/change room I can’t imagine, but moving on. The story goes like this; when I go to shower after I finish my workout there's often a woman singing in her shower cubicle. After several weeks I've noticed that there are two different shower singers and I have to say, they are the yin and yang of vocal ability:

Singer 1 - this woman has got to be a pro, she has a fabulous voice and I’ve stayed in the shower too long some mornings, almost turning into a prune, because I've enjoyed listening to her. She occasionally sings some jazz standards and sometimes other songs that may be Hindi, I can’t understand a word of those but I don’t care, she’s got a great voice. She could sing a commercial for laxatives and it’d sound good.

Singer 2 - this girl couldn’t hit a note if it came out and hit her first. She repeats the same line of the song that is her chosen victim for the morning over and over again, each time with different notes, all wrong, then hums, then la-la-la's, all off key, then silence, thank God the aural torture is over, but no, away she goes again. This morning we suffered through “lalala - hum - lalala - love and peace - hum - love and peace - hum”. Love and Peace? Like hell.

So, I guess this is a similar situation to that of passengers being able to use their mobile phones on planes. On that topic, can you imagine the 14 hour flight back to Sydney, trying to sleep while some dickhead talks loudly to his mates in another time zone (Look how important I am) or some bimbo shrieks down the phone to her friends about her new shoes. I predict an outbreak of a new crime “Aviation Phonicide” where the victim is found in a plane toilet with their mobile phone shoved down their throat (or somewhere else depending on which disgruntled fellow passenger gets there first....)

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Al Ain Airshow

There are lots of Colin's fabulous photos of the airshow including the incredible wingwalker here.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

A flying visit to Cairo

I'm writing this at Cairo airport departure lounge after a very hectic weekend. The departure lounge at the airport still looks like a series of portacabins stapled together but never mind. Colin has been offered a job here in Egypt and we were here this weekend to meet the company people and see the project site he could be working on. There are some photos here.

It’s been full-on since we flew out of Dubai just after lunchtime on Thursday. (I watched "Death at a Funeral" on the plane going over, very English, very funny.) On arrival at Cairo we were met by the Egyptian 'fixer' who arranged the visas and got us through immigration. There is no customs procedure on arrival in Cairo it seems, as long as you collect your bag that's customs enough. The hotel car, a nice new Mercedes, was waiting for us and off we went into the Cairo rush hour traffic. We were staying at the Semiramis Hotel which is right on the banks of the Nile opposite the hotel I stayed in when I was here in 2005. We had time for a quick shower and change before heading off to dinner with the company reps at the Thai restaurant in the hotel. Lovely meal. Unfortunately I couldn't stay awake to watch Dina perform at the nightclub in the hotel, she doesn't come on until at least 2am, though I was pretty annoyed to find out that Saad Al Sagheer sings there on a Thursday night and I'd missed him too. Ah well, next time inshallah.

We were on the road before 7:30am the next morning to drive out to the development site which is on the north coast about 100kms from Mursa Mutruh. Whatever is the Arabic word for "back of Burke/out in the boonies/beyond the black stump" then this is it.

We had a very interesting morning looking at the proposed project, had lunch at the El Alamein hotel which is right on the beach and is now part of the development that Colin was looking at. The sea was an amazing azure blue which I hope will show on the photos we took. Next on to look at villas and apartments at several places along the coast then a very quick stop at the Commonwealth area of the El Alamein War Cemetery. The cemetery is set in a small valley and could be very easily missed. We'd already passed the Italian and German cemeteries which are on the other side of the highway. The Italian memorial is marble with the names of dead soldiers on it while the German memorial is a large cube possibly made of granite, very austere and marks a mass grave, no individual soldiers are named anywhere on it. There is also museum near the Commonwealth area but we didn't have time to visit it unfortunately.

Next we drove into Alexandria but as it was dark we couldn't see much except the marshes of the Nile Delta. From there we headed back to Cairo and arrived back at around 8:30pm. When we got back to the hotel we went for a walk along the Nile to Roda Island, found the palace I visited last time, then walked back along the Corniche. Very nice.

This morning we only have had time to have breakfast and get out here to the airport. Our flight leaves at 12:15. Unfortunately because it was such a short trip and it was all business, Colin hasn't seen anything of the marvels of Cairo, we couldn't even see the pyramids in the distance last night because it was already dark by the time we got back - next time inshallah!

Back to work tomorrow and we have to work a whole 5 day week - good grief I think I've forgotten how :-)

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Yesterday was pestilence, today is flood so I suppose tomorrow is fire....

Flooding outside BurJuman in Dubai, photos taken today

How ridiculous has this week been?
Sunday - many people couldn't get to work because of the traffic snarl ups caused by the closure of roads for the visit of George Bush

Monday - an unexpected public holiday (declared at 4pm the previous day) most major roads were closed and people were stuck at the roadblocks for up to 7 hours.

today - the sky opened, rain's pelting down and Dubai has flooded. The traffic, yet again, is at a standstill.

Deny, deny, deny

This is a priceless quote about the traffic situation in Dubai over the past couple of days. Its taken from today's edition of Arabian Business:

'Despite the chaos, a spokesman for Dubai Police told local media there were no major traffic problems in the city.' And that's how things are done in Dubai, simply deny they're happening!

Monday, 14 January 2008

The day George came to town aka House arrest in Dubai

Something to tell your grandchildren about, the day SZR was empty.

Day 1: Sydney people, imagine if all the road closures and disruption during the APEC conference had been sprung on you overnight without any warning at all. Well, that's what happened here in Dubai yesterday and there are only three words to describe the result: complete bloody chaos.

Yesterday on the early morning trip home from the airport after arriving back from Beirut we found the slip road in front of the Fairmont Hotel blocked off by the police so we had to drive round the block. On the radio various people were reporting traffic holdups all over the city that were worse than usual but nobody could say exactly why this was happening. During the day it eventually came to light that George Bush was in Abu Dhabi so Dubai was a mess as a result.

Back to the story, after a quick shower and change of clothes I got into the car to drive to work. Fifty minutes later and all I'd achieved was to get out of the driveway and crawl 300 metres down the road. While I sat there cooling my heels and sorting my car CDs, a friend called to say she'd spent an hour in her car barely moving and was now heading home having given up on getting to her office. I drove round the block and went home but, as at that time, nobody knew the cause of the traffic snarl I thought I'd try to get to work an hour later when I hoped the traffic would have cleared. Unfortunately the traffic mess was even worse than before so I thought I'd try to get to work the back way. What an idiot I was! I ended up on the highway heading to Sharjah unable to get off because all the exits were blocked by queues of cars. Aaaagh! I decided that, as I knew how to get to DFC at least, I'd head there and then figure out what to do. By the time I made it to DFC I'd decided that the day was a complete wash out. There was no way I was going to get to work, or if I did to work how long was it going to take me to get home again, so I had the car washed, had lunch with Colin and then crawled my way back home.

About 4pm an email started circulating through the Dubai legal firm grapevine advising of possible major road closures the following day. I went to the government transport department website only to find that the site hadn't been updated since 7 January, not a lot of help there. At 5pm the Gulf News website announced that tomorrow is going to be a public holiday and listed the road closures.

Day 2: Today is Monday and Dubai is shut down and off limits. There is an eerie silence outside and the only people walking around Satwa are confused tourists and irate locals. The airport is a mess as passengers who arrived today cannot leave the area as the roads are blocked, passengers who are scheduled to leave today can't get out there. The airport authorities advised intending passengers to get to the airport an extra 2 hours early and to come via one particular highway exit point. The problem with their plan was that the police had actually blocked that exit off and weren't letting people through. A friend who dropped his wife off at the airport just before the curfew started has been stuck at a roadblock for seven hours.

Security people are absolutely everywhere some in uniform but there's also a large contingent of plain clothes guys on the streets, some of whom are obviously "not from round here". Most of the guys blend in and are unobtrusive which is the way it should be but others need to go back to Stealth School. The prize for best non-disguise goes to the extremely fit looking, young white guy sitting at a bus stop on SZR dressed like a dero (hobo). Hobo in Dubai? White person at bus stop?!? Good Lord, he couldn't have stood out more if he'd been sitting there wearing a sequin bikini. (He was also wearing a beanie with the wire from a single earpiece showing.) The disguise might work on the mean streets of some US city, but in Dubai he stuck out like a sore thumb.

(The presidential entourage passed through Dubai at 2:45pm and the roads were reopened shortly afterwards.)

Photos are here.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Baalbeck and beyond

The Temple of Bacchus, Balbeck, Lebanon

Today was an early start for a trip to Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa Valley isn't really a valley, its more of a plateau between high ranges of mountains and has been the corridor used for travel between Syria and the coast for thousands of years. The drive took about an hour and a half and passed through many areas that had been seriously damaged by both the retreating Syrians 3 years ago and aerial bombing by the Israelis last year. So sad, Lebanon is such a beautiful country but throughout history it's suffered constant pummelling from other countries/groups with their own agendas. There are lots of photos here.

The ruins at Baalbeck are extensive and some are still in remarkably good condition. Wajdee took us first to the Roman quarry to see where the stones for the construction of Baalbeck were cut. In the quarry is a huge block of stone that had been hewn and prepared to be one of the pillars in the Temple of Jupiter but was never used. The stone, which measures 21,5m x 4m x 4.5m, is estimated to weigh around 2,000 tons and is the largest cut stone in the world.

The Bekaa Valley is best known as the stronghold of Hezbollah (Party of God) and everywhere along the road Hezbollah flags hang from houses and shops. The whole area is very conservative and their politics are still anti-West which could explain the cool reception we received. Wajdee dropped us at the entrance to the Roman ruins and we were immediately beseiged by guys selling Hezbollah tee-shirts, flags and Hassan Nasrullah pillowcases.

The town of Baalbeck dates back to 3,000 years BC and was named for Baal, a particularly unpleasant god whose followers regularly sacrificed their own children to honour him. After the invasion by Alexander the Great the name of the town was changed to Heliopolis (City of the Sun). The Romans founded a colony in Baalbeck around 64BC and construction of the temples commenced shortly afterwards. After the Romans came Christianity and in order to stop the pagan rites that still continued in the area, many parts of the temples were destroyed and the biggest columns were sent to Istanbul to be part of the Aya Sophia. The Muslims invaded in 748 and I surprised to learn that the Mongols got to Baalbeck in 1400. The Mongol Mob certainly got around (a Kiwi pun there). The largest temples at Baalbeck were dedicated to Bachus and Jupiter and their worship ceremonies involved sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll or back then sex, wine and oud music. The Temple of Jupiter at Baalbeck was built on foundations over 300m long. The columns in the temple are apparently the largest in the world though only six now remain. Due to the enormous size of the columns and foundation stones it was once believed that the building had been constructed by giants. The remaining arches and columns are spectacular. It was very cold and the water that had gathered in depressions in the ruins had frozen solid.

Over to the Temple of Bacchus which is very well preserved and really only lacks a roof. Many of the carvings are still intact with several friezes of Roman gods and goddesses clearly visible and in good condition. Originally the temple's interior would have been painted in full colour which would have been quite a sight.

We spent a couple of hours wandering round the ruins, and spent a few minutes standing on the magnificent stairs leading up to the Temple of Bacchus listening to a particularly heartfelt call to prayer and soaking up the atmosphere.

From Baalbeck we drove over to Aanjar a small town which was founded by Armernian refugees fleeing from Turkey in 1918. The historic ruins in the town date to the very earliest years of Islam and were built by the Umayyads (the guys who built the Grand Mosque in Damascus, Syria) but is laid out in the same style as a typical Roman town. The major difference between the ruins in Aanjar and the other ruins we saw in Lebanon is the stonework. In Aanjar the walls are built with alternating layers of blocks and narrow bricks which is a Byzantine anti-earthquake method of construction. With the snow topped Anti-Lebanon mountains (that's their name alright) in the background, tall trees and a park like backdrop it was a lovely place to be.

We had a late lunch then headed back to Beirut. We had a few hours to spare so we headed off to the movies to see "Michael Clayton" the George Clooney movie. English sound track but subtitles in Arabic and French. Wajdee picked us up again and we headed out to Beirut Airport for our Air Arabia flight back to to Sharjah.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Jeita Grottto and Sidon

Crusader Sea Castle at Saida (Sidon)in Lebanon

Today we headed up to the Jeita Grotto which is a series of huge underground caverns unlike anything I've ever seen. On the way out we went through an area that suffered serious damage during the Israeli bombings in June last year. There was considerable damage to the buildings and highways and several bridges which had been destroyed included one huge bridge over a valley. A long section of the bridge is still on the side of the valley rather like the pictures of fallen bridges after an earthquake. Until the bridge is rebuilt, all road traffic has to follow the old road that twists and turns down one side of the valley and then up the other side. There are lots of photos here.

There is gondola ride up to the first cavern and we shared with a guy from Qatar and a young couple from Jordan. There is a complete ban on photography we had to leave our cameras in a secure locker. We then walked down a short tunnel and into the main cavern which is huge. The sheer size is mind boggling as are the stalagmites and stalactites inside. THere is a concrete pathway which takes you round the cave with various platforms including one platform where I could see through a hole in the cavern floor and down to the water in the lower cavern which was hundreds of feet below. The lighting was very effective making some of the formations seem translucent. There were formations that looked like lace, others like coral and some resembled cake mix that had been poured in folds down the side of the cave. The walk round the cave took about 40 minutes, then we caught the train down to the second cavern. The train was actually a row of carriages being pulled by Massey Ferguson which was disguised as a train, fooled all the kids anyway. In the second cavern we had to leave our cameras again, then we got into small boats which glide out onto the water which half fills the cave. The motors are electric so there is silence except for the 'shwish' of the water. The trip out and back takes about 10 minutes and is breathtaking.

In the after Wajdee drove us down to Saida which is the ancient city mentioned in the Bible is Sidon. There is a crusader castle called a Sea Castle which was built right on a small island just off the seafront and linked to the mainland by a stone bridge. The tide laps against the castle walls. We took some some good photos - once the soldiers allowed us on the beach front to take them. Then we went off to Wajdee's favourite bakery where we sampled sanioura the local delicacy which is like a sweet shortbread. Another heart stopping drive through Beirut traffic, the police who are supposed to be directing traffic just wave their arms in the air while complete chaos goes on around them. There are no traffic lights so all intersections are a test of wills, cars just seem to drive straight at each other and its a case of who blinks first. No wonder most cars have dents and scrapes all over them. I also know that double yellow lines here mean, well, absolutely nothing.

Tomorrow we head out to the Bekka Valley to see the ruins at Baalbeck and then to Anjar.

Friday, 11 January 2008

A trip to Byblos and the Chouf Mountains

The harbour at Byblos, Lebanon

There's no doubt about it, Beirut is a city on a war footing. I've been to many cities before where there are armed soldiers on street corners - starting with the soldiers in Kabul in '78 who looked so young we called them the Gun Monitors - but here it feels serious and the boys of the Lebanese Army are tooled up for action. There are tanks at each roundabout (but now I've been out in Beirut traffic I think a tank is the only safe way to travel). During our travels today we passed groups of army vehicles on the road with guys sitting in the back with sub machine guns and behind the hotel tonight there were more armed soldiers than normal. The reason is that there may or may not be an election here over the weekend, nobody knows for sure whether it will take place or not yet. There are posters on walls everywhere showing the pictures of the major candidates together with the picture of a popular politican who was assassinated a few weeks ago. Photos of today's trip are here.

Beirut has Christian and Muslim areas and during the Civil War these areas were run by various militias who bombed and/or shot at each other. The city was physically divided for years by the Green Line which was a no-go area between the two communities. The Green Line is now a busy road full of trendy shops and restaurants but the residents of the city still cluster in their own areas depending on religion. This afternoon we passed through the edge of a Muslim part of Beirut where I saw posters of the leader of Hezbollah on some of the lamposts. The area we are staying in is a Christian area, not too hard to spot as there are shrines with statues of the Virgin by the sides of the roads, a huge life sized nativity scene in the middle of a major intersection up from the hotel but more omninously, red crucifixes spray painted on the walls of many of the buildings.

Today we started out with a trip to Dog River (Nahr al Kalb) which is a steep gorge, with a small river running through it. Legend has it there was once a dog living in the gorge that barked to warn the local people of oncoming invaders (sort of like the geese of Rome only somewhat more appealing). On the walls of the gorge plaques have been carved detailing the actions of various armies that have passed through there. The oldest plaque is from the 6th century BC and the most recent is that of one of the Christian militias from the Civil War. We were only able to see a couple of them as there was an army patrol there who told us "Mafi soura" (No photos) as they walked past with their artillary pieces on their shoulders and as the helicopters hovered overhead. Our driver Wajdee did some sweet talking and I was able to take some photos inside the remains of the "dancing restaurant" where some of the old videos of Hwyaida Hashem and Samara were filmed.

Next we drove further up the coast to the town of Jbail which in ancient times was known as Byblos. Byblos has in the past been invaded by 17 different civilisations including amongst others, the Egyptians, the Phoencians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders and the Turks. We went to the Crusader castle which has a spectacular setting on the harbour where we were lucky enough to be guided round the site by a retired professor of history. This made the visit incredibly interesting. The castle was built from stones taken from 3 Greek or Roman temples that were demolished by the Crusaders. The castle is built on top of the remains of the many civilizations before it and over the past 80 or years, archaeologists have uncovered a Roman theatre, numerous temples and outlines of houses. They've also found 9 royals tombs which are unusual in that they take the form of vertical shafts dug into the rock. We were able to scramble down a tunnel into the tomb of a prince from 1,900 years BC named Abi Chemou to see his huge stone sarcophagus which is still in place at the bottom of one of the shafts. To get the stone sarcophagus into the tomb, the tomb shaft was filled with sand, the sarcophagus manouvered on top of the sand which was then removed from the bottom and taken out through the tunnel. Slowly as the sand was removed the sarcophagus was lowered to the bottom of the shaft. After the visit to the castle we walked down to the harbourside where I chatted to some soldiers on guard duty down there. On the way down to the harbour I heard the call to prayer coming from a tiny mosque and I stopped to listen. The muezzin had beautiful voice, I wonder if he would like to move to Satwa? Anyway, as I stood there I noticed that on the wall opposite the mosque was a niche containing a statue of the Virgin Mary. This seemed to bear out what our guide had said that, unlike the rest of Lebanon,in Byblos the Christians and Muslims still live in peace together.

We headed back to Beirut via Jounieh which is a town about 20kms out of Beirut. During the Civil War Jouneih was known as party central for Beirutis. The main street still has a vague French charm but other than that, the party is over for Jounieh.

In the afternoon we headed out to the Chouf Mountains the stonghold of the Druze to see the palace of Beiteddine. We only got a small way into the palace before being turned back as the Army were closing the palace to prepare for the arrival of the new President, whoever he may be, after the election, whenever it takes place. Next stop was Deir al Qamar a beautifully preserved 16th century palace which now contains a rather bizarre collection of wax models.

The final stop for today was back in Beirut at a cliff side area called Rouchi (same name as the Lebanese nightclub in Sydney) to see 'Pigeon Rocks' which are rock arches just off the shore. It was dark by the time we arrived but the rocks which are lit up at night looked spectacular. Damn cold though.

The Lebanese currency is the lira which is known locally as the pound. The exchange rate is an unbelievable 394 Lebanese pounds to the UAE dirham which means, for example, dinner tonight cost 46,000 lira which is about $30 US. Being given a five figure bill for the cost of 2 coffees and a couple of croissants is quite scary too.

Tomorrow we are going out to Jeita Grotto. On Saturday we're planning a longer tip out to the Bekka Valley to the ruins at Baalbeck, then back to Beirut for a midnight flight back to Dubai, all inshallah of course.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

First day in Beirut

The remains of an apartment block opposite our hotel in Achrafiye, Beirut, Note the shell hole at the front of the top floor wall.

Arrived in Beirut this morning after an early morning flight from Sharjah on Air Arabia which is sort of like Virgin Blue but no alcohol and they broadcast a pre take off prayer for a safe flight. We flew in to Beirut over the ski fields in the mountains behind the city which looked beautiful.

In Beirut there's a lot of damage still evident from both the Civil War and the fighting last year. A huge road bridge we passed on the way from the airport has been reduced to a massive pile of rubble by Israeli bombing and many buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes.. The apartment block across the road from our hotel has shell holes in it and has been burnt out. There's a palpable feeling of tension around the place, armed soldiers on every corner, large anti bomb bollards outside all major buildings and handbag checks at all shopping malls. Unlike Yemen, there is a real impression that "something" could happen at any time.

This afternoon we had a wander around the hotel area, I was amazed by the number of people I heard speaking French, I think I heard more French than Arabic. Don't know if that will be the same in other parts of Lebanon. There are lots of book shops around the area and the majority of books for sale were in French. On the lighter side, the people are almost without exception, immaculately dressed, and all the women have fabulous hair. Even the old lady I saw who was wandering along talking to herself loudly was wearing a snappy combo of red jacket, black pants and high heels. It took me about 15 minutes of being surrounded by all this sartorial fabulousness before I thought "Man, I have got to get my hair done". Which I did, had a great cut too, cost less then Dubai and now I no longer feel like the scruffiest girl in school.

Off tomorrow to Byblos up the coast.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

A weekend in Beirut

Thursday 10th January is a public holiday here in Dubai as it is the Islamic New Year. We're making the most of the long weekend and heading to Beirut, capital of Lebanon. I hope we'll be able to see the Roman ruins at Byblos and Baalbeck and maybe some bellydance or debke. Anyone have any recommendations?

Monday, 7 January 2008

AFL comes to Dubai

The UAE is going to see some real AFL when the Crows play the Magpies here in Dubai on Saturday 9th February 2008 at the Ghantoot Racing & Polo Club. The Crows -v- the Pies, this is great. Why is it great? Simply because as a die hard Swannies supporter I can go along to the game and boo *everybody*. What could be fairer than that?

Cheer, cheer the red and the white....