Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crashing the border to Oman

I spent 15 minutes in Oman, perhaps illegally. Does that count as a country visited?

We took a road trip to Hatta, a small town about 100 kilometers outside of Dubai, nestled in the mountains of the same name and hard against the border with Oman. It's a beautiful area, surrounded by rough, jagged peaks. High in the hills above the town is spring-fed lake, by far the most serene spot I've seen in the UAE.

We started out from Dubai and watched the scenery gradually change from urban sprawl (not just an American phenomenon, apparently) to low desert hills and scrub brush to massive red dunes, and eventually, the dark and rugged Hatta Mountains.

In the town of Hatta, there's a heritage village and museum but not much else: a few stores, a police station, a bus station, and on the outskirts of town a new housing development that was noticeably devoid of people. But the lake was beautiful. We hiked along a small peninsula to a rocky outcrop surrounded by water and enjoyed the sunshine and solitude.

Leaving Hatta, we decided to continue east the 10 kilometers to the Oman border. Laborers who leave the country illegally are known to cross the border here, making a dangerous, six-hour trek through mountain passes and wadis, always at night, and far enough from the highway to slip through undetected.

Our plan was simpler: just drive to the border, take a look and then turn back. But after a quick passport check on the UAE side, we were suddenly across the border and into Oman, where we somehow missed the checkpoint and were stopped by a guard who, incredulous, asked us, "Why you not stop at immigration?"

He sent us back to the checkpoint, where we had to get both an entrance and an exit visa, which at first befuddled and then amused the woman helping us. She smiled and gave us a three-week visa anyway, and we turned the car around and headed back to the UAE, laughing all the way.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Day in the desert

"Ho, ho, Merry Christmas!"

People gasped in several languages as a spotlight lit up the top of a sand dune behind the huts that covered the barbecue grills and the full-service bar. There sat Santa Claus, on a camel, waving to the crowd as he worked his way down into the campsite, past the shisha tent and the gift shop, calling for all the children to meet him at the stage for "free Santa gifts" before the belly dancing show started.

It doesn't get much goofier than this.

Christmas Day in the desert seemed to call for something a little different, so that's what we did. It started with a spot of "dune-bashing" -- a ride in a four-wheel drive going up, down and around every hill in the desert -- and ended with a cookout that managed to mangle two cultures beyond the point of recognition.

The dune-bashing was fun, and about what we expected. Our driver, Abdullah, picked us up and headed out of the city, found some sand dunes and took off. Abdullah didn't talk much, but he seemed to know his way around the dunes. He gave us a few thrills, and stopped several times for photo ops while he stepped off to the side and grumbled into his cell phone.

It got a little old after about an hour, and I think we were all a little queasy, so everyone was glad when we took a break to visit to a camel ranch. It was pretty cool. I never realized how cute camels are, especially the young ones. The smell, however, is awful.

Then it was back in the truck and off to the campsite, which promised camel rides, "an authentic Arab barbecue" and a chance to "try the hubbly bubbly" (shisha).

The camp was larger than we expected, big enough for a couple of hundred people, and I couldn't vouch for how authentic it was -- the full bar certainly didn't fit in, nor the gift shop that sold dishdashes and abayas for only a few dirhams. You could get your photo taken dressed up in native costume or with a forlorn looking pet falcon. The three-minute camel rides were kind of silly, but hey, at least we could say we'd been on a camel.

It all seemed to be a typical, cheesy, touristy desert experience, maybe not all that authentic, but still fun in a harmless sort of way. Then the music switched from Arabic to Jingle Bells, and Santa magically appeared on his camel. We definitely were not expecting this.

He came down from the dune and into the campground, swaying on his camel, a skinny local guy with a fake beard and a couple of pillows stuffed into his Santa suit. About all he ever said was "Ho, ho, Merry Christmas!" and "Queue up, children, queue up!"

I guess no one told him there are three ho's in "Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!" Even some Japanese in the crowd shouted "Ho, ho, HO!" back at him, hoping he would get the hint. But when he hopped from his camel with a bag of cheap toys, he was surrounded by kids (and adults) who didn't seem to mind. After a mad scramble, they scampered back to their seats, happy, and finally the show moved on.

(An aside: This was the only place we heard "religious" Christmas songs. There were carolers in the malls, but they stuck to Rudolph and Jingle Bells and similar tunes.)

The barbecue lines opened and the music switched back to Arabic, and traditional dancers replaced Santa on the big carpet in the middle of the campground. The food was good, and plentiful, with everything from hummus to barbecue chicken, with fresh fruit for dessert.

We finished dinner and watched the dancers and tried the shisha, About 9 o'clock Abdullah was there to drive us back to the city, where we went off to bed with visions of a very different Christmas dancing in our heads.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Here I am, Santa! Turn right!

Christmas is nearly here, and I'm a little concerned. How will Santa find my house?

You see, there are no street addresses in Abu Dhabi. Not for big businesses, not for individual homes.

The official address of my bank, for example, is "In the Omeir Bin Yousuf building, opposite the Etisalat building, Old Airport Road." Considering that Airport Road runs the length of the city, about 12 kilometers or more, unless you already know where the Etisalat building is, you're not going to find it.

Finding an individual home is even more difficult. My flat address is, basically, "Al Bateen, 12th Street, between 32nd and Bainunah streets." The villa itself has no number, the apartment within the villa has no number, and the street is only marked at one end. There must be more than a hundred 12th Streets all over the city; my only hope is that someone can find the one tucked in between 32nd and Bainunah, and I can go outside and flag them down.

This is especially frustrating when you try to call for a taxi, or have something delivered or installed. You end up standing in the street, cell phone to your ear, watching for a glimpse of the cab or delivery van at the far end of the street, so you can yell "Turn now!" at just the right moment.

Somehow, I don't see that working with Santa. I may be out of luck this year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I saw it on the road to Dubai

The early morning mist was hanging low over Abu Dhabi when we left the Corniche and battled through the grinding gears and exhaust fumes of trucks leaving Mina Port. At the first chance, we ramped onto the new Sheikh Zayed Highway that skirts the city, a virtually deserted six-lane speedway running through a barren landscape past Saadiyat Island, soon-to-be-home of the new cultural center, and Yas Island, home of Yas Marina and the new Formula One track.

Both are, or will be, spectacular developments, and I'm sure the city will find its way to them. But seen from the expressway, through the mist and slanting sunshine, they sat off in the distance, oddly-shaped futuristic structures isolated in a wasteland of sand and scrub interspersed with pools of water and mangroves. It made me think of an old sci-fi film, of what the producers imagined the surface of Planet Krygon12 should look like. I half expected hovercrafts to emerge from some hidden silo and zip across the empty land to the next pod.

In the far distance, across the flats, were the hazy outlines of the city and suburbs, and more buildings that made you ask in wonder, "What's that?" Like the almost-finished hotel billed as the most leaning tower on earth - it cants 18 degrees to the west, 14 degrees more than the famous Tower of Pisa - far away but hard to miss as it winked in the sunlight.

The new road connected to the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway, infamous for its high speeds and deadly accidents, and we raced through the suburban developments. Slicing through the desert, the road running on a straight line for about 120 kilometers between the two cities, the buildings became smaller and less futuristic, but no less perplexing: boxy and windowless structures dropped in the sand with no obvious purpose; a large mosque being built directly beside a convenience store with no other buildings nearby; a cluster of villas in the distance with no clear way to get from here to there.

There was a road sign that said "Camel Race Track," although as much as I strained I couldn't spot a grandstand or track. I can't wait to find out more and perhaps come back and see if they have a paddock and a parade ring and a call to post. I know they have camel beauty contests here; I wonder if the prettiest camels are also the fastest.

The desert seemed to stretch endlessly, but sooner than you would think, larger buildings appeared in the distance, and we sped through the industrial area of Jebal Ali and the unexpectedly shiny Metro station, the last stop on the new commuter rail line than runs the length of Dubai city.

As we passed the huge plant that provides power and water to the emirate, the sand and scrub gave way to the high-rises around Dubai Marina, and then the Burj Al Arab Hotel, the iconic sail-shaped building off to the left, the world's only seven star hotel, with light panels that change the color of the sail every 30 minutes, and where Agassi and Federer squared off on a rooftop tennis court that extends out over the water.

The towers faded briefly before picking up again, and soon I was craning left and right to see them all, like a rube in New York City for the first time, but I really didn't care because so much of it was just so remarkable. Most striking of all is the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world at 165 floors, looming over the other skyscrapers like a big brother who plays on the basketball team.

People make this commute every day, I'm told, living in Dubai, where the rents are cheaper, and working in Abu Dhabi. I assume that over time, the visual impact diminishes and the sights disappear into the landscape, but after only two trips, that's hard for me to imagine.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

From the update desk

It's a quiet Sunday in Abu Dhabi -- a good time to catch up on some earlier posts.

Travelin' blues: My son finally arrived at 2 o'clock this morning, completing an 80-hour odyssey from Atlanta to New York to Amman, Jordan to Abu Dhabi.

Sounds like he had quite an adventure. If I didn't know better, I'd think he had the whole thing planned all along.

His highlights: A visit to MOMA in New York, where he had never been, and smoking a cigarette on the roof of the Amman airport with the captain of the airport police, watching the sun set over the city. (He doesn't really smoke, but when a police captain in a foreign country growls "Come with me" it's probably best to go along for the ride.)

And the lowlight: Trying to buy a ticket on Gulf Air, which will not allow you to buy a ticket less than four hours before a flight, even though their Amman ticket counter opens just two hours before the flight to Abu Dhabi. He finally came in on Royal Jordanian Airways (at about twice the cost).

* * * *

It's raining, it's pouring:
That predicted 20mm of rain I scoffed at? It turned into almost 120mm in a single day, drenching the city and causing 10 deaths in traffic accidents across the country.

Storm drains were overwhelmed, and the rising water flooded most streets and many ground-floor apartments and businesses. Cars and buses were stalled everywhere.

My street stayed relatively dry, but a block away the water was well over a foot deep. The city had to send out pumper trucks to remove the backup; the drainage system just wasn't built to handle that much water.

When it was over, we had received almost an entire year's average rainfall in 72 hours.

* * * *

The taxi drivers:
I knew I had good reason for keeping Rafiq around. Razon is peeved (somewhat justifiably so) and has been "too busy" to pick me up the past few days.

Here's what happened: When I called Razon for a 6.30 am ride to Dubai, I was certain he said he could not do it because it was too early. So I arranged for Rafiq to do it.

But as we were pulling away from the villa, I spotted Razon's car coming our way. I watched in the mirror as he stopped in front of the villa and called me, as he always does. He was not too pleased when I told him I had made other arrangements. I think he had gotten up extra early to accommodate me.

I've been trying to patch things up, but so far, he's not buying it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

And down the stretch they come ...

If you can't bet on it, is it still horse racing?

Well, sure it is, technically. At the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club, the horses still come out of the gate and thunder around the track and the fans cheer and the winning jockey pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line. For those two minutes, you might as well be at Churchill Downs. Okay, maybe Tampa Bay Downs.

But I must say, the chance to win a microwave oven just isn't as exciting as trying to cash a big trifecta ticket for cold hard cash.

Gambling is illegal in the UAE, but the several hundred people who come out for the weekly six-race card can win prizes for picking the top three horses in each contest. Microwaves, dishwashers, air conditioners and the like are on display in front of the grandstand, ready to go home with the lucky winners.

One of the first things you notice when walking into the track is that there's no tote board. In its place is a large video screen, which comes in handy. The 10-furlong track is so big -- there's a nine-hole golf course in the infield -- it's impossible to see the first half of races with the naked eye because the horses start so far away.

The only information on display is on a wooden results board beside the parade ring, where the numbers of the top four finishers in each race are hung by a worker climbing atop a riser. The Green Monster scoreboard at Fenway Park is a technological marvel compared to this thing.

It's a small grandstand, made smaller by the fact that the center section and upper levels arereserved for owners and trainers and their guests. Everyone else sits off to the sides; there is two sections with hard plastic seats and another with simple concrete risers.

Admission is free, and so are the programs. The crowd is almost all male, but there are a few women and children. There's an open grassy area where people picnic and small kids boot around a soccer ball. People watch the races intently and cheer loudly for their favorites, even without wagering. It's almost as if we're all there as extras in a movie, providing background color and noise so the sheikhs don't have to watch their horses race in silence.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The travelin' blues take a detour

Well, that didn't work out so well.

I completed the 90-minute trip to Dubai early this morning just in time to learn my son got bumped from his flight again, this time in New York. So he's getting an extra day in the big city, and I spent five hours checking out Dubai. I don't think I could describe my first impressions of the place in one word, but two will do: chaotic playground.

Abu Dhabi had been described to me as Dubai's somewhat dowdy older sister, and now I know what that means. Abu Dhabi has its share of glitz and glamour, but compared to Dubai, it's practically a spinster aunt.

It's as if someone decided to build a cross between L.A. and New York, and do it all in 10 years. And they're not quite done yet. Dubai is a jumble of the most incredible buildings you've ever seen, many of them half finished. It's also the home of the tallest building in the world, which is truly beyond description. I've attached a photo of the Burj Dubai so you can see for yourself. Keep in mind that those buildings around it are high-rises in their own right, and this photo is several months old, before the Burj was topped out at 165 stories.

Dubai is the most pedestrian-unfriendly place I've ever seen. You just can't get from here to there on foot. Sidewalks disappear into constructions zones; your only choices are to turn back or walk in a street filled with lorries and cement trucks.

But the harbor area looks promising, and the Jumeirah Beach Walk is a world-class cobblestoned stretch of shops, cafes and residence towers alongside a sparkling shoreline. I saw more westerners in five hours today than I have in four months in Abu Dhabi, for what that's worth. And not many of them seemed to be working too hard.

I'll definitely be back when I can stay for a while and learn my way around. In the meantime, I'm back in Dowdy Abu Dhabi (how's that for a chamber of commerce tagline?), grateful for the relative peace and quiet. I must be getting old ...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We got the travelin' blues

Murphy's Law seems to hold true no matter where in the world you are, or where you're going.

I was eagerly awaiting my son's arrival today, but he was flying on a Delta buddy pass and got bumped yesterday in Atlanta. They told him there's not much hope of making it onto another direct flight for at least 3-4 days; they're all full to overflowing.

But hey, we don't give up easily. Right now he's on his way to the airport for a flight to New York, and from there to Amman, Jordan, where he will have to spend a night before continuing on to Dubai.

Being the caring and protective dad that I am, I'm trying to catch a flight to meet him in Amman. I'll probably never have another reason to go to Jordan, so why not? We'll explore the city, find a place to stay, then head back this way the next day.

But I'm having problems on my end, too. Something's wrong with the online reservation system at Fly Dubai Airlines and it won't process my booking. No matter how much I yell at the computer screen, it keeps telling me I entered "incorrect information."

People in the reservations center say it's a mystery. (They were friendly enough, but of no help whatsoever.) And because it's less than 24 hours until flight time, they won't take a phone reservation. Argh!

So Plan B (or is it Plan C? Plan D?): I'll get up at 5 am and get to the Dubai airport and try persuade someone to put me on a plane to Amman. If all goes well, I can arrive about 1 hour before he does.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Shave and a haircut, Abu Dhabi style

There's nothing quite like having a man who doesn't seem to understand a word you're saying holding a straight-edge razor to your neck, waiting for you to answer a question that you couldn't understand either.

Even a haircut can be an adventure in this town.

It's been a long time since I've given much thought to a haircut. I went to the same chain salon for years, and my regular "stylist" had my simple cut down to a five-minute job. Clippers, scissors, quick beard trim, here's $15, see you again in three weeks.

When it came time for my first haircut here, I was intimidated by the salons in the malls; they looked far too hip and involved for the likes of me. So I found a street-corner barber shop, figuring that's where I'd have the best chance of finding the quick and easy cut I was accustomed to.

Not so much.

At even the most simple-looking shop, a shave and a haircut can be a 30 minute experience. It starts with a scalp massage, and proceeds to scissors, clippers, trimmers and yes, the old-fashioned straight-edge razor, which the barber wields like an artist as he neatens the edges of your beard, the nape of your neck and around your ears. Even your eyebrows and nose hairs are clipped and trimmed to perfection.

All the while your head is swaddled in soothing lotions and balms and powders, all with a manly Old Spice kind of smell, each carefully cleaned away before proceeding to the next step.

This finesse and pampering goes on mostly in silence, the barber going about his work with impressive concentration. He pauses only to seek your approval for what you can only guess he's going to do next. (My first haircut here, I almost got out of the chair four times, thinking it was over. The barber seemed hurt, perhaps thinking I was unhappy with his work, but I quickly figured out that there was more to come.)

The cost for all this lavish attention that leaves you feeling like a car just out of the detail shop? About 30 or 40 dirhams ($8-11). Quite a bargain.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's raining, it's pouring

It's raining!

Not one of the brief drizzles that sometimes passes for rain here, where you have to run around in circles to get hit by a drop, but an honest-to-goodness, day-long drenching. Not hard, but steady.

It's fabulous. The streets are wet. There are puddles on the sidewalks. Storm drains are backed up. People are wearing raincoats and dashing about with umbrellas.

This is my first Arabian rain, and it's a pretty big deal. The newspapers do stories when it rains. Weather forecasters warn the public to "brace themselves" for the deluge, and the authorities caution drivers to take extra care on the slippery roads.

There's more rain in the forecast for tomorrow -- up to 20 millimeters (about three-quarters of an inch). Not much by Florida or Georgia standards, but enough to cause quite a stir in a place that gets less than 5 inches of rain all year.

When people ask what I miss about home, one of the first things that comes to mind is rain. The way it sounds through an open window or on the roof of your car. The way it bounces off sidewalks and pavement and glistens on the grass. The way a storm moves across open water. The way you sleep on a rainy night.

Of course, when Atlanta was drowning under daily downpours this fall, no one wanted to hear about my wistful feelings for the wet stuff. Maybe now I won't have to trouble you with that one any more.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A crime reporter's dream

Someone who read the "Price of Justice" item posted earlier -- about two bothers who got only three years for murder after they paid blood money to the victim's family -- asked what would have happened if the brothers had been sisters?

I must say, I have no idea. I've never heard of a female being involved in a violent crime here.

In fact, there's very little violent crime. This is by far the safest place I've ever lived. You can walk the streets at 2 in the morning with no fear of being mugged or accosted. You can get money from an ATM without looking over your shoulder.

Bad things do happen, of course -- murder, drugs, prostitution. It's just that they don't seem to happen nearly as often as in the States. And stranger-on-stranger crimes are rare.

Most of the crime is of the white-collar variety. There are lots of bribery and embezzlement trials, sensational cases involving millions of dollars. Businessmen and government officials are always trying to work an angle, it seems, especially in Dubai.

Other crimes often have interesting twists that would make a crime reporter salivate. Imagine what Edna Buchanan would have done with these stories:

-- Two men stole 2 million dirhams from another man after blowing chili powder in his face and pushing him out of their car.

-- A gang of five stole a suitcase filled with gold, shipped it to Costa Rica disguised as car parts, and hopped a plane to Hong Kong. The inept criminals left so many clues, police solved the crime before their plane landed.

-- A Jordanian man stole a Russian tourist’s passport and held it for ransom.

-- Two men were caught selling $1 million in counterfeit bills for only $19,000. Why so cheap? Someone had spilled black paint on the fake money.

-- A Nepalese gang armed with swords and knives jumped from the back of a pickup truck and attacked police who were raiding a brothel.

-- A salesman faced up to 10 years in jail for doctoring a parking permit so he could avoid a $40 fine.

-- And a man who was stabbed repeatedly, robbed and left for dead was sentenced to six months in prison because when police took him to the hospital, he presented a fake ID card.

Now that is being tough on crime!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's like being 18, all over again

I bought my first legal bottle of wine yesterday.

The law says, once you have your resident visa, you have to have an alcohol license to buy or consume alcohol. In a bar, at a liquor store, at your neighbor's house ... doesn't matter, technically, you have to have a license.

Of course, everyone ignores this law. No one cares if you drink in a bar. No one cares if you drink at your neighbor's house. And there are a couple of liquor stores that openly flaunt the law and sell to anyone, licensed or not, as long as you pay cash.

But ... a guy from the office told me he once spent a night in jail here after getting into a car accident on his way back from one of those "look the other way" liquor stores. The police searched the car and found the beer and wine in the trunk, and he didn't have a license, so he went to jail.

(Sidebar: He swears they had Tea Boys in the jail, going from cell to cell offering lattes and oolong tea. And they gave him extra pillows and made everyone be quiet after 10 p.m. Just like Attica!)

He got out of it okay; he had the receipt showing he had just purchased the stuff and was on his way home, so they let it go. But other people have warned there are plenty of things that could happen, out of your control, that could get you into trouble for not having a license. So just to be safe, I decided to get one.

It's a process. You have to provide three passport photos. Copies of your passport and visa. And a "letter of no objection" from your employer, which also shows how much you make. They use that to determine how much you are allowed to spend each month.

So I gave all that -- plus 200 dirhams -- to the nice folks at my local Spinney's, and three weeks later, I had my license.

It's cute. It looks like a miniature passport, with my photo and a government stamp and everything. It even has a blue cover embossed with gold lettering. On each page, they keep a record of what you buy each month.

So, you pull out your passport and show off your tourist visa stamp from Istanbul. I'll produce my alcohol license and show you where I bought three bottles of Italian red for only 85 dirhams!

Monday, December 7, 2009

A day at the beach

I've lived on Miami Beach. I've lived in Fort Walton Beach. I've lived in Tampa and spent every day off at St. Pete Beach. I've vacationed in Grayton and Cancun and Grand Cayman. I've hung out in Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach. I've been to San Diego's Torey Pines Beach and seen things you wouldn't believe. I've ridden out a hurricane on Panama City Beach. I've rented houses and condos on Hilton Head Beach. I've walked the shore at Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia. I've driven south on A1A and eaten conch fritters on Marathon Beach, then stood on Key West Beach and strained for a glimpse of the beach in Cuba, just 90 miles away.

What I'm saying is, I know my beaches.

Today, for the first time, I checked out the Corniche beach in Abu Dhabi. It's not the best beach I've been to. But it's far from the worst.

The beach was closed when I first got here, undergoing renovations in preparation for the Formula One race last month. They built boardwalks. They imported sand. (The local sand was not "fine" enough.) They built cafes and coffee shops. They set up bandstands and bicycle stands and ice cream stands.

It's clean and sparkling. The water is an incredibly clear, Caribbean-like blue green. It's inviting and comfortable. And like no beach I've ever seen, it's divided into three sections.

The Family Section, which costs 10 dirhams to enter, is the largest. It has parks and playgrounds and bouncy castles and slides and free lounge chairs. But you must be a woman, a child, or a man with a woman and child to enter.

Then there's the "Open to Everyone With 10 Dirhams" section, which is similar, but smaller and without the playgrounds. The theory seems to be, the cover charge will keep out the laborers, who have been known to hang out at the beach (and the malls) and ogle women, which makes everyone here very unhappy.

I'm not sure where I stand on this particular issue: these guys are building the country with their sweat, they're far away from their wives and families and sending every spare dirham home. They work six or seven days a week for a pittance and live in labor camps with thousands of other sweaty guys, and there are parts of town where they are just not welcomed. I don't think women should be ogled, of course, but if I were in their shoes ... I don't know.

In the middle is the free, open beach, which is where I went. It has coffee shops and cafes and about 300 yards of beachfront, tucked in between the other two. There are thatched barriers that run from the boardwalk to the surf line between each section, to keep anyone (heaven forbid) from peeking into another section. This is where the most people were -- men and women, mostly women, which was surprising, and mostly westerners. (It was Monday afternoon. The laborers were busy laboring.)

There were guards stationed at the surf line where the thatched walls ended. I saw two Pakistani guys get near the border and turn back. I went for a walk, and as I approached the barrier and the guard, I gestured ahead and asked, "That's the pay beach, right?" "Yes, yes," he said, waving me through, inviting me to continue my walk, free of charge. Apparently I was no risk as an ogler.

Feeling like I was striking a blow for laborers everywhere, I just said "No thanks," and turned and walked back down the stretch of free beach.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

That's not cricket! (Thank goodness)

Just in case anyone thinks it's all fun and games over here in the land of sand, you should know there ARE hardships.

Like trying to follow college and pro football, American-style, from nine time zones away in a place overrun by cricket and soccer fans.

(Want to get a rise out of a Brit? Tell him the reason you're leaving the pub at 9:30 on a Sunday night is so you can hurry home and watch some "real" football.)

The 1 o'clock NFL games kick off at 10 pm here, and the late games at 1:15 a.m. And you can forget about Sunday and Monday Night Football; they don't even bother.

I've yet to find a pub that shows the games. But with a satellite package at my flat, I get three or four NFL games each week. It's a seemingly random draw, although tomorrow night the Falcons will be on for the fourth time this season.

They do strange things on the broadcasts. Many times, the crowd noise is muted, so as you watch the action it sounds like Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston are talking in an empty room. When the network cuts away to the studio -- "Let's go to Curt Menefee for an update" -- the camera stays on the field and all you get is silence.

Sometimes they block the scores ticker, sometimes they don't. Same with the halftime show. And there are no commercials -- that time is filled with promo spots from Showtime, the satellite provider.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I like soccer just fine, and I'm slowly beginning to figure out cricket. But this is my kind of football. It even inspired me to make my first Abu Dhabi chili last Sunday. Who cares if it was 3 a.m. and the only game on was the Jaguars and 49ers?

Friday, December 4, 2009

True confessions: I'm a two-timer

It's really awful, how I string them along. It's not right the way I lie, telling one I'm at home when I'm really out riding around with the other. They don't know about each other, of course. I hate to think what would happen if they ever found out.

I'm talking about taxi drivers, of course. The only thing more valuable than having one loyal driver in Abu Dhabi is having two. And I'll do whatever it takes to keep them both around.

It's almost impossible to describe how utterly frustrating it is to stand in 110-degree midday heat looking for a cab, sometimes for 30 or 45 minutes or more. It saps your soul. It sends you back to your room to change into a dry shirt. It makes you late for work. It makes you cranky. It makes you think about getting on the next plane home.

And when you find a way around it, you never want to go back.

Razon was my first regular driver. He picked me up on an especially frustrating day, and I promised to pay him double the meter if he would pick me up again the next day, same place and time. A beautiful relationship was born.

I've continued to pay him double the meter, which amounts to about $5 American -- a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing you have a ride. The weather has since cooled off; some days now, it doesn't even reach 90. But you get spoiled. It's cool having a driver.
A few weeks ago, Razon was assigned to three days at Yas Island for the Formula One race. I found another driver, and right away I knew Rafiq was someone I could depend on. Like a savvy veteran, I lavishly overtipped when he dropped me at work, and offered him double the meter to pick me up the next day.

Now I have two faithful drivers. Razon is still my main guy, taking me to work most days, but I keep Rafiq around, too. I have him drive me to the grocery store or laundry or mall whenever I can. You never know when Razon might decide to head home to Bangladesh.

If that makes me a two-timing cheat, so be it. What would you do in my shoes?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A bounty on Ceiling Cat?

A handful of feral cats live on the grounds of Abu Dhabi Media Company, and some of them slip into the newsroom from time to time looking for food and attention.

The boldest of the group is called Ceiling Cat. He got his nickname because he jumps to the ceiling -- actually, onto the large air ducts that are suspended from the ceiling -- whenever he senses a threat. It seems to be the Tea Boys' job to harass him and chase him out of the building.

Ceiling Cat stays inside more than the others, roaming the air ducts, keeping an eye on things. It's not unusual to be working at your desk at night and suddenly hear a mewing from above. Look up, and there's Ceiling Cat staring down at you.

He is particularly despised by The Management, perhaps because, as legend has it, one night he used the floor under the editor's desk as a litter box. There was even talk of bringing in birds of prey (falconry is big around here) to eliminate the "cat problem."

Things had quieted down, but now we fear there may be a bounty on Ceiling Cat. The Tea Boys have been especially aggressive in trying to capture him lately. One even climbed into an air vent trying to nab him; another chased him across the newsroom with a mop.

But CC is a wily old cat, and he can make the leap from floor to desk to vending machine to ceiling in a split second. That's usually when he's mewing the loudest, perhaps out of indignation at being harassed.

Or maybe he's just talking trash to the Tea Boys.

Thanksgiving in Abu Dhabi

I was a little worried about Thanksgiving. It has always been a big family holiday for our clan, with as many as 15 or 20 of us gathering under one roof for turkey and talk and good times. The meal always includes turkey and ham -- my dad never ate poultry, for reasons that were never fully explained, and we have continued the tradition after his death.

After the meal, we choose up sides and play touch football in the yard or at a park, then come back inside for more food. At night we break out games like Pictionary and BuzzWords, and the sweetest, calmest family you've ever met suddenly becomes competitive, trash-talking crazies.

It’s the kind of day mirrored by thousands or maybe millions of families, nothing special really, until you realize you’re not going to be there for the first time in as long as you can remember.

So here I was in Abu Dhabi, 7,500 miles from home, wondering just how lonesome I would be, and how long it would take me to eat all the leftovers if I cooked a turkey for myself.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about, at least on the food and festivities front.

First came an invitation from a recently arrived American couple, who put out an unbelievable spread on Wednesday night – a delicious turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy (why is it that everyone can make good gravy except me?), two kinds of stuffing, fresh green beans, cranberry relish, warm rolls … all my favorites. After the meal, five Americans and a British interloper sat around drinking wine, talking shop and, for the most part, being quite thankful.

On Thursday, it was an international Thanksgiving party – Canadians, Americans, Brits, Australians and a Jamaican who had just received his U.S. citizenship. The food was once again superb (yes, the gravy, too), the wine flowed freely, someone’s iPod was displaying excellent taste ... it was almost enough to make me forget about what I was missing.

At both gatherings, the non-Americans were openly curious about our holiday – Do we give presents? Is there a Thanksgiving Eve? Is it a religious holiday? They seemed pleased to learn that it really is all about family and food and being thankful, not commercialized or divided by religious differences.

When I came home, sated and tired, I thought more about what I was missing back in the States. The first Thanksgiving in more than two decades without your family is a sad thing. But I realized I have much to be thankful for – a lifetime of Thanksgiving memories made only dearer by being away, and new friends who may not know everything about The Fourth Thursday in November, but who know a heck of a lot about making the most of what we have and being thankful for it.

The Queen of Sheba is in the house

In Atlanta, a building is considered ancient if it has been around for ... what, maybe 50 years? Certainly anything still standing that was not burned by General Sherman would be given reverential treatment as an historic structure.

In some ways, the city of Abu Dhabi is the same. Pretty much every building has been built since the 1970s and 1980s. Side by side with the new, glittering, futuristic towers are loads of run-down mid-rises, the equivalent of bad hair days for architects. Truly ugly buildings that deserve to be torn down.

But out in the desert in Sharjah are the remains of a castle that some people believe was the home of the Queen of Sheba.

As in, the woman who's mentioned in the Bible and the Quran, going to visit King Solomon to test his famous wisdom. She was presumably the ruler of the region somewhere around the 10th century BC.

Now, some experts claim the site could not be more than a thousand years old, and maybe they're right. But even still ... that it's even possible to consider these are the remains of a castle that belonged to the Queen of Sheba is just mind boggling.

The price of justice

Color me naïve. I had heard of the concept of blood money, of course, but thought of it as an ancient custom, something half-remembered from a long ago Bible story or history book.

But the concept is alive and well in the UAE, even if the victims aren’t.

In a recent case in Dubai, two 19-year-old brothers from a local family were found guilty of killing their Pakistani driver and burning his body to conceal the evidence.

Before sentencing, the judge set aside a one-month window for the family of the accused killers to negotiate with the family of the victim. If they could not agree, the brothers faced life in prison.

But money talks. Five million dirhams (about $1.4 million U.S.) to the victim’s family spared the bothers’ lives, and they will be released after serving three years.

An ode to the iPod

When you're feeling like a stranger in a strange land, when you feel alone in the middle of city of a million and a half people -- and it seems not one of them is anything at all like you -- there's nothing that brings you home like music from home.

Not the popular classics from rock and roll or country or pop legends -- you might hear those anywhere here. There's something a little unsettling about catching a ride from a toothless Pakistani cab driver who's tapping his fingers to Sweet Home Alabama as he barrels down Sheikh Zayed The First Street. (Nothing against toothless Pakistanis, of course, or even Lynrd Skynrd, but ... well, you know what I'm saying.)

But what really takes you home, what really calms your fears and soothes your nerves, is the music that's on your iPod, the music you believe belongs only to you and that tight circle of friends, both known and unknown, who share the same slightly-off-the-beaten-path tastes.

Put the iPod on shuffle and let it flow, from Lucinda Williams to Steve Earle to Fred Eaglesmith to James McMurtry ... I swear, when Pieta Brown launches into Sonic Boom, I don't know whether to curl up and cry or jump up and dance ... to Blue Mountain to Shawn Mullins to Albert King to Susan Tedeschi.

There's not much here to remind a lonely expat of home. But music travels easy these days. Board a plane in Atlanta with an iPod nano tucked into a shirt pocket and a Logitech player in the corner of a suitcase, and that's all it takes to bring a couple of thousand or so of your favorite tunes halfway around the world. Thank heaven for that.