Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The hardest two kilometers I've ever run

Halfway up the hill, I came to a complete stop. I turned and looked down at the cars on the road far below, then back at the crest of the hill looming high above. I couldn't take another step.

This was a race?

Granted, "hill" was probably not the right word, either. The switchback road was carved out of the side of a mountain, climbing 1,000 feet in just over two kilometers. It was the 12th leg (of 26) in the Wadi Bih Run, a 72-kilometer relay race just across the border in Oman.

This segment – my third of the race – started on a slight incline. I took the baton and set off at a good pace, but it didn't take long before the road began to rise steeply and I slowed to jog. Then a shuffle. Not long after that, I settled into a steady walk, striding as high and far as I could with each step.

But with each turn in the road, another steep climb loomed. My hamstrings tightened. My back stiffened. My lungs gulped for air they couldn't get. I was barely moving.

A guy who looked as fit as a Navy Seal shuffled past me, only slightly faster than my walk. I heard him mutter under his breath, "C'mon! Do it."

I don't know if he was talking to himself or to me.

Then I just stopped. Hands on my knees, breathing hard, cursing the fact that what little training I had done for this race was on the flat-as-a-tabletop streets of Abu Dhabi and not on a Stair-Master or a treadmill with an incline. I had a sudden urge to sit on a rock and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

But I knew the other four members of my team were waiting beside our SUV at the top of the hill. I had volunteered to do this ridiculous leg. I had to finish it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Inside the mosque, the bare truth

Everything was fine until I looked at my feet.

I was at the Grand Mosque for an iftar dinner with a Muslim friend, and after the meal, which signals the end of the daily fast during Ramadan, he invited me to join him in the mosque for the evening prayer.

This was a pleasant surprise – I had always heard non-Muslims were not welcome inside a mosque during prayers. I knew I would have no idea what was being said, but I figured I could work out my own prayers. He told me not to worry, just follow his lead and it would be OK.

So there I was, in the third-largest mosque in the world, in the holiest month of Islam, smack in the middle of row upon orderly row of praying Muslim men, doing my best to think my own spiritual thoughts and trying to keep up as we bowed and kneeled and touched our foreheads to the cool, hard marble floor ...

And suddenly I noticed all the brown, bare feet in the row in front of me ... and to the left of me ... and to the right of me ... everywhere I looked, bare feet. Hundreds of them, mostly middle aged feet but lots of little boy feet and old man feet, too, every one of them as bare as could be.

And then I noticed my own feet, covered with ... blue and gold argyle socks.

Distracted and alarmed – had I just violated mosque etiquette? – I immediately lost my place in the bowing and kneeling ritual. I was too busy looking left and right to see if anyone was looking at my feet.

I was afraid I had embarrassed my host, and I nervously glanced around, half expecting someone to pull me aside and admonish me, or even banish me from the mosque. But everyone seemed immersed in the prayer ritual, and I made it to the end without incident.

As we shuffled through the crowd toward the exit, where we had left our shoes (well, my shoes, his sandals), I whispered my concern to my friend. My lasting memory of iftar at the Grand Mosque will not be the call to prayer or the meal shared with hundreds of men or the holiday atmosphere or the giving spirit, but rather the overwhelming relief I felt when he laughed and said, "No, no, socks are fine! People just don't wear them much here."

Ramadan kareem.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pakistan cricket and a bicycle built for three

Three of us were crammed into the back seat of a Toyota Yaris, grumbling good-naturedly about our discomfort as we navigated the confusing highways and dusty roads that lead to the cricket ground on the outskirts of town.

Then we saw the bicycle.

A middle-aged Pakistani man stood upright in the pedals, slowly weaving toward the bright lights of the stadium.

On the seat behind him sat one friend.

On the handlebars in front of him sat another.

A good 10 or 15 kilometers from town, they clung to their perches and seemed not at all distressed by the situation. Their countrymen were playing a cricket match, and their destination was finally in sight.

You may have heard about the Pakistan national cricket team this summer – a spot-fixing scandal during their tour of England, three star players suspended, allegations of more matches being fixed, and on-going spats between players, coaches and the national cricket board. All this for a team that has not played a home match since March 2009, when the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by gunmen before a series in Lahore.

You might think such a serious mess would dampen the fans' enthusiasm.

But no.

Pakistan is playing a month-long series against South Africa in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and with 1.2 million Pakistanis in the country, the team has received lots of support. The cheapest tickets – 30 dirhams, about $8 – are pricey by Pakistan standards, but even those who could not afford tickets showed up on this night, happy to stand outside the stadium and catch a glimpse of the field or the scoreboard.

Inside Sheik Zayed Stadium, in the stands and along the grassy banks that surround the field, fans were cheering and chanting and banging on chairs, having a good time despite the team's tattered reputation, depleted lineup and lackluster showing.

South Africa won easily, but as we left the stadium, the Pakistan fans did not seem any more disappointed by the result than they were deterred by the scandal. Corruption, one cab driver told me, is a way of life in Pakistan. They regret the scandal, but they are not overly surprised by it. They still love cricket, and they still love their team.

Many of the Pakistanis here are laborers and taxi drivers who work long hours for low pay and don't have a lot of entertainment options. So a chance to see their beloved team was more than enough to draw them to the stadium on the outskirts of town, even if it took a few hours perched on a set of handlebars to get there.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A cab driver's perspective on America

Out of the blue, my taxi driver said to me the other day, "There are no Muslims in America, right?"

Dammika asks me a lot about America. Where I live, what my house looks like, how many days a week people work, why my children don't live at home while they're in college, whether it's hot or cold, how far it is from New York to Los Angeles, if the streets look the same as in Abu Dhabi ... he's a sincere and caring and curious guy.

He's from Sri Lanka, and a Buddhist, which I could have guessed by the way he panics whenever a butterfly flits into the path of the cab. We're going to die one of these days because he's afraid of killing a wayward moth.

He seems pretty smart about the ways of the world. But he was astounded when I told him that, yes, there are Muslims in America.

"But there are no mosques, right?" he asked. "Where do they worship?"

I thought this was all coming from the Ground Zero mosque controversy, but when I asked about that, he didn't seem to know what i was talking about. He said he just assumed that after 9/11, mosques and Muslims were banned from America.

So he was perplexed when I told him there are millions of Muslims in America, and thousands of mosques, and plenty of Buddhists, too, and that while there are extremists who cause problems, people are, for the most, free to do as they please when it comes to religion. And then I started telling him about America being founded on, among other things, freedom of religion.

He shook his head in wonderment.

"America ..." he said. "It sounds like a very good place."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Marking time in the Land of Sand

Well, hello there.

Yes, I know, it's been a while.

Seems like just a few weeks ago, I was marking off six months in Abu Dhabi, half a year in the land of sand and sheikhs, 26 weeks chock full of new experiences and stories to tell, every day a discovery.

Now ... well, it's been a year, and how the heck did that happen so fast?

And why don't I have anything to write about anymore?

Maybe it has all become too commonplace. What once seemed remarkable is now the norm; the great story that I couldn't wait to share now feels like just another routine moment in the monotony of everyday life.

Not that there's nothing going on. Let's catch up.

I went to Rome for a few days, which was a treat. I met six US Marines on shore leave ... twin Russian sisters, 25 years old, in town to pick up an award for their animated film ... a couple of American guys who live in Rome and meet for happy hour drinks at the same pub every day to watch the tourists walk by ... a family from Charlotte, including a dad who decided he and I should race down the streets of the historic district on Segways, chariot-style ... and a poker table full of young Italian guys who weren't too happy when I walked away at 4 am with a good portion of their euros.

I celebrated my one-year anniversary in Abu Dhabi and my birthday, all on the same day, with a dozen or so good friends from work. It's Ramadan, so even though the bars and restaurants are open, there's no music, so things are kind of quiet and subdued. With the right combination of good people, that's a blessing -- you can actually hear each other talk!

My air conditioner broke, for about the fifth time this summer, and I have to say, there's nothing like having no A/C when its 115 degrees outside to make a person irritable. I now have a direct line to the maintenance guys, who try their best -- they were here until midnight the other night, trying to help me maintain my cool -- but for these prices, seriously, cold A/C should be a given.

I'm dealing with the heat much better than this time a year ago, when I was a novice with scrambled brains and had no clue how to survive on the surface of the sun. Now I know all the tricks for ducking from one cool place to another, and I gave up running outside months ago. Now, it's an easy 5K jog on the treadmill at the gym a couple of times a week. For the record, I still hate treadmills, but that will have to get me by until it's safe to go outside again.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Blowin' hot and cold

I often marveled at tales from friends who lived in faraway places like Minnesota and Wisconsin about the brutal winters and their daily battles with snow and ice – places so cold that people would often go weeks without venturing outdoors for any length of time. From heated garage to underground parking lot to skyways between buildings ... if you worked at it, they said, you really could get by without coming face-to-frozen face with the arctic-like temperatures.

And from the comfort of my mild-mannered Florida or Georgia winter, I scoffed at the folly of living in such an extreme place.

Well, you know what they say about payback.

Here I am living in Hades, at the other end of the extreme, where we're several weeks into a heat wave that will last a good four months. That's four months of ducking from front door to waiting taxi cab, taxi to the comfort of an air conditioned mall or workplace, the idea of a pleasant stroll down the street as ludicrous as trudging through the snow and ice just for the fun of it.

At the moment, a few minutes past midnight, a quick check at weather.com reveals that it's 95 degrees with 65 percent humidity – "feels like 104" – and the forecast for the next ten days ticks off like an out-of-control metronome: 102-103-104-106-104-108-109-108-109-110 ...

It won't stop until it hits 115 or higher, not once but for days on end when we reach August and September. The hottest I've ever been before was probably on Hilton Head Island in late August, but that really doesn't compare. This is not the "dry heat" of the Arizona desert, either, thanks to the 60-70 percent humidity. This is a sweltering, oppressive heat that saps your energy and spirit and drives you indoors with every bit as much force as any icestorm ever did.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Gooooaaaalllll!!!! (I always wanted to say that)

Welcome to the World Cup in Abu Dhabi, where Americans are clearly second (or third) class citizens, well down the pecking order from the lordly British, Germans, Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilians, Ghanans, Algerians, Serbs, Australians ... well, you get the picture.

Some of that is because of sheer numbers (there are probably 10 or 20 British ex-pats here to every American), and some is because of our (lack of) pedigree when it comes to international soccer. Excuse me, football. They invented the game right there in England, have you heard?

So it was not really a surpise when, even though we showed up early and were promised the U.S. game would be on the big screen RIGHT IN FRONT OF US, when the games kicked off last night we were escorted to three seats at the bar in front of a 17-inch set with fuzzy reception and no sound. And it was not a surprise, really, when the management could not find the game for the first five minutes or so. Of the six channels showing the World Cup, five had the England-Slovenia game, and the one with the U.S.-Algeria game was proving quite elusive.

But soon we had the game and a bucket of Budweiser -- ("I traveled 8,000 miles to drink Budweiser?" my friend asked) -- and settled in, three of us along with a quiet American gentleman and a guy who I think was Italian. He never said a word but stared at the screen the entire game and seemed to get excited whenever the U.S. did well.

All around us the room was teeming with England fans, of all nationalities. They were comfortable and confident after an early goal, moaning loudly at every near-miss and agonizing over every Slovenian attack. Some would walk by our TV from time to time to check the score -- if both games had ended in a draw, the U.S. would have been in and England out -- but mostly they stayed in front of their big screens and cheered on The Three Lions.

As the U.S. game went agonizingly into injury time, a scoreless draw almost a certainty, we dejectedly calculated the time remaining and became increasingly resigned to our fate. A handful of gleeful England fans gathered behind us, and you could almost sense them counting down the final minutes in their heads.

Then suddenly, the ball went from the American goal-keeper to a player up the field, and two quick passes later a shot bounced off the Algerian keeper and into perfect position for Landon Donovan to drill home the winning goal. It was dejection to jubilation in a heartbeat -- we jumped and shouted and high-fived like we had just won the World Series.

The England fans were very gracious; when both teams win, I guess everyone's happy. As we sat there chatting and waiting for replays, eager to relive the moment, the joy of being an underdog became evident. Our small but merry band of Americans was just happy to have survived and advanced; the England fans were already working themselves into a state of worry about the next round, where an impressive Germany squad awaits.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A good day to stay indoors

I've had to cancel trips to the beach because of rain and clouds and wind and work and hurricanes and tummy aches and a balky MGB that just wouldn't start ... just about every reason imaginable. Today, I discovered a new one.

I was looking forward to an afternoon at the Hilton Beach Club. It's a great place when it's 107 degrees out, because in addition to the beach and the gulf, you have a couple of pools you can dip into when the heat is intolerable, plus a poolside bar with cold beverages. What more could you ask for?

My faithful cabbie arrived at the right time and I climbed in with my backpack full of beach wear and my iPod and a NY Times crossword puzzle book and some sunscreen. (An aside: Dammika, my driver, is always shocked when I get into the cab not wearing work clothes. To him, a day off is a foreign concept.)

We had gone several blocks before I realized ... it was really foggy. Or at least, it looked foggy. Turns out it was a big sandstorm, which fills the air with wind and grit and is definitely a good reason to cancel a day at the beach.

So I detoured to the mall and walked around for a while and bought some books - including my first Stieg Larsson novel - and had a nice lunch and came home. A glass of wine, some cheese and a good book ... not exactly Pass-A-Grille Beach reincarnated, but still not a bad afternoon.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Close your eyes, and it's 1968 all over again ...

Tonight I feel like I'm a kid again, on a summer visit to my grandmother's trailer in the backwoods of Baker, Florida, listening to the Braves game on the radio and thinking this is the coolest thing ever.

Instead of a tiny, battery powered transistor tucked under my pillow in the dark, picking up WJSB in Crestview, it's a laptop on my desk at my apartment in Abu Dhabi, picking up WLJA out of Jasper, Georgia, on the internet, as clear and crisp as if I were driving north on I-575 headed for the mountains.

The commercials coming out of Jasper sound a lot like they did in Crestview then, touting local businesses with that country twang that is distinct to our part of the world. Don't miss the Red Tag Sale on tractors at North Georgia Ford. Ice cream on special at the IGA Foodliner. I half expect them to break in with the farm report in the top of the sixth inning. Hog futures at 3.75 a pound, up a quarter.

Hank Aaron, Felix Millan, Clete Boyer and Milt Pappas have given way to Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Chipper Jones and Tommy Hanson. And on the air waves, Ernie Johnson and Milo Hamilton are gone, replaced by Jim Powell and Don Sutton, two of the best radio guys in all of baseball.

And when you close your eyes, the rhythm and poetry of the game are the same, and it's easy to imagine the stadium's magical expanse of green that an 11-year-old boy has never seen but knows as well as he knows his own backyard.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Take my stuff ... please!

I went to a party last night and came home with a cookbook, a DVD, a dictionary, a box of maps ... and a new bed.

It was a "Take My Stuff" party, a clever and necessary concept around here, where people come and go all the time and the cost of shipping your things back home, wherever that might be, is usually more than they're worth.

Try as you might to avoid accumulating stuff while you're in Abu Dhabi, it's hard not to. Even if you get by with basic furniture (Ikea is one of the most popular places in town), over the course of a couple of years, "stuff" is going to find its way into your flat. Books, pots and pans, furniture, televisions, DVD players, candles, lamps ...

A "Take My Stuff" party solves the problem of disposing of all that. The person who's leaving provides the beer and snacks and invites everyone they know to come pick over the bones of their Abu Dhabi life. Most of the big stuff is priced at a fraction of its original cost, and the small stuff is free -- unless two people happen to want the same thing. Then, much to the host's delight, a bidding war starts.

I hadn't planned on taking anything, but it was easy to get into the spirit. I'd been thinking about getting a new bed; I bought a twin bed when I moved in, thinking my flat was too small for anything else. But after six months, I'm starting to feel like a monk every time I see it, pushed into the corner, very small and simple and spartan-looking.

So I jumped at a chance to pick up a like-new full-sized bed from Ikea, complete with mattress and matching nightstand, for 500 dirhams. (That's $136.15.) It will make things a little cozier in my already cozy flat, but I'll sleep better at night, and that's worth a lot.

Here's what else I took home:

-- "Asian, One Step at a Time," an illustrated cookbook that starts each recipe with a photo of all the ingredients and includes photos of what the food should look like during each step of the cooking process. First recipe I want to try: Bun Cha, a Vietnamese pork dish.

-- A "Pulp Fiction" collector's edition DVD. Someone came behind me and put in a claim, too, so we had to bid for it. It took 20 dirhams to win ... still not a bad price for a classic, right?

-- A set of seven "UAE Off-Road Aerial Maps." The one that shows Abu Dhabi island and the surrounding desert will soon become wall art in my flat. (You don't want to invest a lot in art that you probably won't be able to take with you. I have a camel tapestry from Dubai, a small water color from Muscat, and a poster of the Burj Khalifa that was printed in the newspaper. The map will be a nice addition.)

-- An Oxford Dictionary that must weight five pounds. I love dictionaries.

The bed will be delivered this week, and soon you won't recognize the place: new "art" on the walls, Bun Cha cooking on the stove, a Tarantino flick playing on the laptop, and, hopefully, just enough space left for me to squeeze over to the bookshelf and pick up the dictionary and solve that last stubborn clue in the Sunday crossword.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Turkish odds (and gods) were against me

I didn't ganyan. I didn't ikili. And I certainly didn't gifte.

As far as I can tell, those are the words for win, quiniela and daily double at horse tracks in Turkey. And for three races at Istanbul's massive Veliefendi Racetrack, I didn't come close to picking even one horse that finished at the front of the pack.

I had an excuse, though. Everything was in Turkish – the program, the tote board, the racing form, the tout sheets. Everything except some of the horse's names, which was part of my downfall. I mean, how could I not bet on a filly named Bye Bye Baby when she was running against the likes of Gülipek, Sari Papatyam and De Nîgrîs? Who cares if she was 25-to-1?

Placing a bet was high comedy in itself. The tellers neither spoke nor understood English. So I would hand them exact change (usually 5 or 10 lira) and jab my finger at the program to indicate the horse I wanted to bet on. They all found this highly amusing. The thought of betting a perfecta or trifecta box was so daunting I never attempted it. For all I know, they don't even have perfectas and trifectas.

The odds were a challenge, too, and it took a few races to figure them out. They seemed to the calculated to the nickel, or the kuru, or whatever it's called. The odds on a horse would not be, say, 3 to 1. They would 2.85 to 1. I spent two or three races thinking it was 2 to 85 or something, which would be a longshot in any language. No wonder so many people were excited to have the winner.

Once I figured it out -- and after not picking a winner in my first three tries -- I decided to go with the chalk in the fourth race, which was aptly named Western Girl. As any horse coming out of the 16 gate should, she bided her time at the back of the pack and romped home at the finish, paying a paltry 1.85 to 1 on a five lira bet. I happily cashed my winning ticket, and after a couple more futile tries I called it a night and took a taxi back to Sultanahmet.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Sultan of the Sidewalk

Fikri has a tough job. He stands outside the Antique Turquoise restaurant on Akbiyik Caddesi in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul, trying to persuade passers-by to stop for a meal or a drink or at least a cup of Turkish tea.

It gets chilly out there, especially in the evening, but he's friendly and charming, and more successful than I would have imagined.

My first afternoon in town, I sat enjoying the sunshine at one of the sidewalk tables at the Turquoise and watched him work. It's an art, and he's a master. He seemed to sense when to give up after the first rejection, and when to keep trying. Many people would get several strides past the restaurant before one last comment got them to turn around and at least take a look at the menu.

The restaurant was just around the corner from my hotel, and we talked every day I was there. He was curious about America, and Abu Dhabi, too. The entire staff was friendly, and they serve a great hummus. I didn't get to try the "salt meat" -- a huge serving of beef wrapped in leaves and coated in a hard layer of salt, which is then set on fire, tableside – but I did treat myself to a great steak on my last night in town, served sizzling on a marble platter.

Fikri joined me for a cup of tea after I finished dinner, and I asked him if he was the best "greeter" on the street. He dipped his head modestly, and said it would embarrass him to say so. But it was obvious that he was pleased, and that he took pride in his work. He's a chef by trade, he said, but he has been at the Turquoise for seven months, blowing on his hands and sipping tea to stay warm as he works his sidewalk magic.