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 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.

Do I look Turkish to you?

The first guy approached me thirty seconds after I got out of the cab at Taksim Square, at the top of Istanbul's famed Istiklal Caddesi. He fell in stride beside me and said something in Turkish. When I replied, "I don't understand," he laughed and switched easily to English.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you were Turkish. You look Turkish," he said happily.

Yeah, right.

If you look around on the internet for things to do in Istanbul, you're likely to come across warnings about scam artists. The word is out: They strike up a conversation, offer to show you around, then buy you a cup of tea or a drink. All this is a prelude to luring you to either a rug merchant's shop, where you get the hard sell, or worse, into a bar where the two of you end up buying drinks for lots of new "friends," after which the bartender presents you with an exhorbitant bill – we're talking $2000-$3000 – and demands payment.

Armed with this information, my scam radar was on full alert, and I quickly brushed the guy off. I continued walking down Istiklal Caddesi – an incredible three-kilomometre-long pedestrian avenue of shops and galleries and cafes and clubs, with hundreds more tucked away on the side streets -- wondering if I had been too hasty. I mean, what if I had just been rude to a friendly Turk?

Those concerns disappeared about two minutes later when another fellow appeared at my side, and also said something in Turkish. "I don't understand," I said again.

He had exactly the same gambit. "But you look Turkish," he insisted. "Isn't that funny! I thought you were Turkish, so that's why I addressed you that way." I let him get as far as the invitation for tea and a tour before convincing him that no, really, I would be OK on my own.

This happened twice more within the next 15 or 20 minutes, and each of them used the same lines. You'd think they would come up with something new, but maybe they've learned this is the most successful approach.

They certainly pick the right place to have the best chance of finding a mark. It's said that more than a million people a day stroll down this street on weekends, and based on my visit – one of the few times I ventured outside of Sultanahmet – that's easy to believe.

Everything's cool in Istanbul

Istanbul's cool.

It doesn't need my endorsement, of course. This place has been cool for several thousand years, long before it was called Istanbul. When your history dates to the Neolithic Age and you've been the capital city of so many empires it's hard to keep count, you get a reputation early on for being a pretty cool place. And after a quick visit over the weekend, I can vouch that its coolness is alive and thriving.

Different sources peg the population at anywhere from nine million to 15 million. Either way, it's a huge place. It spans two continents - the only city in the world to do so - spilling from Europe into Asia (or vice versa; I'm not sure anyone knows which side was settled first).

I stuck with my recent travel strategy of trying to get to know a small area really well rather than attempting to see everything in one visit. There's nothing like sitting at a sidewalk cafe in a faraway place, sipping a Turkish tea and enjoying the sunshine and having a guy from the restaurant up the street walk by and call out "Robert, how are you?" because he remembers you from the day before.

I spent most of my time in Sultanahmet, a historic district that includes the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar and a maze of winding cobblestone streets lined with funky boutique hotels and restaurants. It runs along the Bosphorus Strait, a stunning body of water that separates Europe from Asia and is packed with ships of all shapes and sizes, bound for ports unknown.

Sultanamhet is built on the hills that climb semi-steeply from the water's edge. There are no high-rises; nothing more than four or five stories, all very old and charming and quaint. Many of the buildings have rooftop terraces for restaurants, and because each street is a little higher above the coast than the one before it, they almost all have spectacular views of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of the city across the way.

The Blue Mosque is the main attraction. It reminded me a lot of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, just 400 years older. The Topkapi Palace is nearby, and the Grand Bazaar, and the whole place is bustling with a nice mix of tourists and locals from early morning until around midnight.

There are cats everywhere, even in places where Abu Dhabi doesn't have cats. I saw bar cats and cafe cats and palace cats and rocks-beside-the-sea cats. No ceiling cats, though – Abu Dhabi still has the corner on that market.

The restaurants and bars are an eclectic mix of styles that attract a lot of the backpackers and other young vacationers. I walked into one that was playing James Brown's "The Payback" at full volume, then switched to some intolerable techno junk for about 20 minutes before the "DJ" started taking requests. Just write down a song and hand it to the bartender, who uses a laptop to find a recording online, and it will get played. I managed to get the Old 97's and Lucinda Williams into the mix. Not sure how the crowd liked it, but Istanbul seems like a live and let live kind of place, no matter what they think of your taste in music.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Nothing fishy about this deal

Two pounds-plus of just-off-the-boat fresh shrimp, deveined, butterflied, marinated and grilled to perfection. Total cost: About $10.

Sometimes you just gotta love this place.

I finally got around to checking out the fish market yesterday. The directions were spotty – head toward the port, resist the temptation to turn off at the fruit and vegetable market, circle the roundabout and find the big warehouse-looking building on the docks. It was much easier than it sounded – a big sign saying "FISH MARKET >>>" was a clue that wasn't included in the directions I got from a co-worker – and well worth the effort.

Inside, the market works like a souk -- row after row of big steel tables of iced-down seafood, each manned by a guy trying to get your attention and convince you his is the best, freshest and cheapest you're going to find. The variety is amazing – all kinds of fish, shrimp, clams, crabs, lobsters ... the temptation to overindulge is strong.

But we stuck with the plan: pick out the shrimp (30 dirhams for a kilo), then take them to one of the "cooking shacks" at the side of the warehouse, where guys again compete for your business. It's a great concept – you hand over your catch, tell them how you want it prepared, and come back in 30 minutes. You fork over 10 dirhams and they give you the shrimp, wrapped in foil and smelling so good it was hard not to open them up and try one on the way home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday night football, Abu Dhabi style

Two teams based just a few blocks apart, battling for first place in the national pro league, traffic jam outside the stadium, mounted police, helicopter buzzing overhead, drums beating, rabid fans cheering and chanting, and on the field a nail-biter to the finish.

Now that's more like it.

I had been to two soccer matches here, and each time came away unimpressed. Not by the level of play, but by the lack of energy and excitement. Much of that was due to small crowds (a couple of thousand) in a huge stadium (capacity 40,000), and uninspiring matchups on the field.

But last night, Al Jazira and Al Wahda, tied for first atop the tables, squared off in Al Wahda's cozy 12,000-seat stadium, and it was a doozy.

You could feel the buzz outside the stadium. People and cars and buses jockeying for position, a steady crowd moving toward the gates, the sound of drumbeats coming from inside. Tickets were 10 dirhams, but free for Al Jazira supporters – team officials handed them out, no charge, as we entered the visiting team stands. (My first two games were at Al Jazira, which plays two blocks from the office, so I consider them my team.)

Inside the stadium, as is customary for visiting fans, we were relegated to end-zone seating, well clear of the home crowd, which was probably a good thing. I don't understand Arabic, but it sounded like a whole lot of trash talking going on. Some of it was good-natured chanting back and forth; some of it came complete with hand gestures that would make a New York cabbie proud.

The crowd was close to 10,000 and sounded like a lot more, especially after Baiano, the Brazilian striker who bolted Al Jazira for Al Wahda this season, send the home crowd into a frenzy with a first-half goal. The Al Jazira section came back to life after a goal to even the score early in the second half, but the excitement was short-lived – just a minute later, Baiano put the home team back on top with a brilliant header.

It was then, as Al Wahda's players and fans celebrated, that this became a certified big-time sporting event. A kid in a dishdash and a maroon Al Wahda scarf ran onto the field, easily eluding a couple of out-of-shape cops as he scrambled to and fro, the crowd roaring. An Al Jazira player finally slowed him enough for the cops to catch up, and six burly policemen hustled him off the field as he grinned widely and flashed a V sign to his friends in the stands.

The game got a little chippy after that, as Al Jazira pushed aggressively for an equalizer. But it never came, and when the final whistle sounded the Al Jazira fans directed a few half-hearted insults toward the celebrating winners, then filed quietly out of the stadium.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Meet my new best friend

For a couple of weeks, I had been hearing a kitten outside the villa. A very insistent kitten, I must say, seemingly doing his best to get someone to pay attention.

But I hadn't spotted him until a few evenings ago, when I came back from a run and there he was, sitting on the front steps like he'd been waiting for me all along. He was friendly but demanding in that way only cats can be.

He hasn't worked his way into the apartment yet, but he's getting close. I've been taking him a little food almost every night. We have a bit of a routine. If I've been out for a run, I come inside and get a bottle of water and food for him and we sit on the steps together. If it's not a running night, I'll take a glass of wine and a book for me and food for him. I'm not sure he really cares which night it is.

He was tiny when I first saw him, but he's grown quickly. There's no sign of a mom, or sibling cats. I don't know how he got here, but he has the run of the grounds inside the villa walls, and he's doing just fine. I think maybe he's here to keep an eye on me and make sure I don't get lonely.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy anniversary to me!

Six months ago today, I boarded a plane in Atlanta, bound for JFK and then Abu Dhabi, excited and scared and curious about what awaited me on the other side of the world. This wasn't turning a page or starting a new chapter; this was a new book. Maybe a whole new library.

I'm happy to report that half a year in, it has been an unforgettable and rewarding experience, one I will never regret, easier than I ever dreamed at times, and much harder than I imagined at others.

It has made me appreciate my family and my friends and even my country more than ever. The feelings for the people I left behind are difficult to deal with sometimes, but not unexpected – you are the best family and friends a man could have, so of course I miss you terribly.

It has been a bit of a surprise, though, to miss not just the people but the place. We take a lot for granted in America. We bicker about our politicians and whine about our taxes and fret about our future, but I can tell you, I meet people everyday who would move to the U.S. tomorrow if they had the opportunity. I'm not overly patriotic, and certainly not political, but being here has made me grateful to be an American. Enough said.

The biggest surprises, after six months? The oppressive heat of summer (I knew it would be hot, but 115 degrees with 80 percent humidity? C'mon!). The high cost of living (rent). The affordability (food, taxis). The crazy-quilt opulence of Dubai. The beauty of the desert, and the beach. The tolerance for western values in some regards, the unwillingness to accept them in others. How much I really do like falafel. The mystery of Emiratis. The dichotomy of downtown Abu Dhabi, where you can walk down one street and feel like you're in L.A., then turn a corner and be in Karachi.

Surprising and impressive, too, is the friendliness of the people from around the world who come here to make this place work and grow. I am especially in awe of taxi drivers, as you can probably tell from earlier posts, perhaps because I meet a new one almost every day, and because the sacrifices they make for their families is humbling. Many work 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, sending home every dirham they can to support their families and stoke their dream to return one day to Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.

The things I miss the most, after six months? Family and friends, of course. Watching American sports at normal hours. Shady, tree-lined streets. Atlanta's restaurants. A bartender who cares who's playing right field for the Braves. Florida, all of it. A newspaper that writes about things I care about. A crisp fall day. Sibling summits. American-style crossword puzzles in the newspaper. Live music. Rain, and weather in general. (It has been said that Abu Dhabi doesn't have weather, just climate. There's a big difference between summer and winter, but the change is so gradual you don't notice it. Each day is pretty much like the one before.)

So there it is, six months under my belt, with who knows how many more to go, nothing but blue skies and sunshine and good times ahead. I must be the luckiest man alive.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beware the hidden bride

An ambassador who lives in Dubai was in court this week seeking a quickie divorce and hoping to recover more than 500,000 dirhams worth of jewelry and other gifts he had bestowed upon his bride-to-be.

His complaint? Once the marriage contract was signed, he says, he lifted his wife's niqab (veil) to kiss her – and discovered she had a beard. And was cross-eyed, to boot. He quickly canceled the wedding and headed off to find a lawyer.

He had only met the woman a few times, apparently, and each time she kept her face covered by the niqab. But he liked her enough to propose marriage. He even sent his mother to visit the bride-to-be's family, but they duped her, he claims, by showing her photos of the woman's sister – who was beardless, I assume. Or at least clean-shaven.

Final outcome: The ambassador got the divorce, the bearded lady got to keep the gifts.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The subdued Super Bowl

This was my Super Bowl:

No beer, no soda, no chips, no dip, no pretzels, no chili ... and no commercials.

I discovered it's not much fun yelling at the TV when it's 5 a.m. and you're afraid you'll wake the neighbors. And I discovered that I really did miss the commercials (they're blacked out here).

The sun came up, the game ended and I went back to bed. Work was only a couple of hours away.

Table for one, please

A hungry black cat, Tim McGraw tunes, complete solitude and a sparkling new Audi 8.

You never what you'll encounter when you go out to dinner in Abu Dhabi.

The spot: The Riviera, a well-recommended waterfront restaurant about a mile from my flat, located in an out-of-way marina called The Al Bateen Club. The date: A Saturday night, which is a slow night here because it's the last gasp of the weekend; everyone goes back to work on Sunday morning.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise to walk in about 8 p.m. and discover I was the only one there – not counting two hostesses, two waiters, four waitresses, two bartenders, and I assume a cook or two back in the kitchen. Probably some dishwashers, too. They all seemed happy to see me.

I had my pick of tables, of course, and chose one against the railing overlooking the marina. The moment I sat down, the black cat appeared on the slanted seawall that runs along the other side of the railing. He was a pro – he walked up, meowed hello, saw that I didn't have any food yet and disappeared into the darkness.

As I scanned the menu (Italian with English subtitles), I noticed country music playing in the background. Odd, I thought, for an Italian restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Odder still, they played the same artist the entire hour and a half I was there. Someone must have bought the box set. (I must confess, I had to Google some lyrics before I was sure it was Tim McGraw. I wonder if he knows he has a fan club in Abu Dhabi?)

The moment my food arrived, the black cat reappeared. He sat patiently on the other side of the railing, letting me know he was there without being pushy. (Panhandlers could learn a thing or two from this cat.) My bowl of seafood fettucini was huge, and I was happy to share. Small pieces of shrimp and fish and mussels dropped over the railing were quickly devoured. The cat had obviously been through this routine before – the moment the waiter took the dishes away, he once again slipped into the shadows.

The food was good but not great, the wine was fine but a little pricey. The location was a bit odd – I had to walk along a dusty road through a dark construction site to reach the club – but the view was nice and the service was great, as you might expect, considering the numbers. (Just before I left, two guys came in and took an inside table. They were the only other customers I saw.) The area around the restaurant looked worth a return trip, too – a big pool with an outdoor bar, a shisha lounge, a health club.

Oh, and the Audi A8. I asked the hostess to call a taxi for my short trip home, and rather than dialing the standard cab company she went the luxury route. The car was gorgeous and the driver was friendly, and he didn't seem to mind that he had come all that way to drive me the short mile back to my flat.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Emiril has nothing to worry about

Made my first attempt at chicken masala tonight. I think I'll give it a B-minus. Not bad, but man, I can't wait to try it again!

Half the fun of cooking here – or anywhere, for that matter – is the grocery shopping, which I did tonight after work. Lots of interesting people at Spinney's, always. It's one of the few places where westerners and Emiratis and everyone else mix it up with little or no pretense. We bump shopping carts and jostle for position in the produce-weighing line, abayas and shorts and flip flops existing in blissful harmony.

I found everything I needed without much trouble, even the garam masala powder, which surprised me but maybe shouldn't have. I also picked up some more baby asparagus, which has changed my opinion of asparagus forever. (cooked with a little olive oil and pepper and parsley in a hot skillet ... yum.)

Back to the main dish. The green onions and cumin and masala powder and (secret ingredient) all came together perfectly. Until I overcooked it! I rescued it with a little water, but when I spooned it over the long grain rice, it was just ... not quite right. The chicken, however, was sublime.

Not bad for a first effort. Like I said, a B-minus. I'll go for the A-game masala next time. Someone alert Food Network.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Greedy + Gullible = A really bad day

Greedy is bad. Gullible is sad.

Put the two together and here's what happens:

Two Abu Dhabi men were cheated out of 250,000 dirhams (about $68,000) by swindlers who promised they could double the money in six hours by covering it with a magic powder.

But when the men went to police, they were charged themselves with being involved in black magic – a crime, as it turns out, even for the victims. They lost their money and now they face jail time, too.

Here's what they say happened: A friend told them he knew people who could magically double their money. They met at a home and delivered the money to two Africans who took it into the bathroom.

There, the Africans hid the real money in their clothes and filled a clear plastic bag with counterfeit money, covered with the promised magic powder. They shook it all up to make it appear there was more money, then gave it to the two men and told them they had to wait six hours for the doubling process to complete.

When they opened the bag, of course, Dumb & Dumber discovered that the money was fake.

They tried to call the swindlers, but the sneaks had turned off their cell phones. So they went to police, and things went downhill from there.

The police eventually tracked down the swindlers, too, and they will soon stand trial for black magic and counterfeiting. Unless, I suppose, they have a magic powder to make the charges disappear.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Remember Pick-Up-Sticks?

Do you know what this is? I'm not sure, either. It's a sculpture, of sorts, made from unfinished 2x4's and 2x2's. Up close, they appear to be pieced together haphazardly, like over-sized toothpicks, but when you step back it looks more uniform. It was erected last month on the public plaza at the Corniche beach, and as you can see, people ride bikes and walk all around it.

It has seven sides, or arms, or legs, or whatever they are, so the general consensus is that it represents the seven Emirates. Of course, people assume that about anything here that comes in sevens, so who knows for sure? Maybe it's a giant pick-up-sticks game.

(By the way, for all you friends having fun in the freezing rain today, it was a glorious 80 degrees and sunny at the beach. Just lettin' you know.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

A moment for Moosa

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

A few days before I casually typed those words in early December, a four-year-old boy named Moosa had been found dead in a restroom at his neighborhood mosque in Dubai. Police soon learned that a man had lured him away from his friends with the promise of an Eid holiday gift, then raped and murdered him.

The man confessed and the trial was swift. The story that unfolded was all too familiar: the gruesome details of the crime; the lonely, pathetic history of the killer; the grief of the family.

This week, the man was sentenced to death by firing squad. Curiously, before he is executed he must serve a six-month sentence for drinking alcohol on the night before the murder.

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say with this post. Maybe that I was wrong; that even one such horrific crime makes a place just as bad as anywhere else. Maybe I feel guilty for not thinking of Moosa when I wrote that item in December. Mostly, though, I'm just hoping you'll take a moment to think of him today.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Which one of these does not belong?

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is coming to Abu Dhabi, it was announced yesterday, for one of the biggest mixed martial arts events in history. Two title fights, the sport's biggest stars, hours of bone-crunching entertainment as fighters from various disciplines bash each other bloody inside an eight-sided cage.

This country has a thing for big-time sports events. It's part of the effort to promote Abu Dhabi and Dubai as "world class" cities, along with top-flight museums (branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre are under construction), big-name concerts (from the New York Philharmonic to Beyonce) and star-studded film festivals.

I understand the attraction to Formula One racing (it's pretty obvious; the local drivers all think they're Jenson Button). Likewise the golf and tennis tournaments with all-star fields, and certainly the Club World Cup soccer tournament.

And given the interest (and investments) of certain sheikhs, staging the world's richest horse race at a new $2.7 billion race track makes perfect sense.

But Ultimate Fighting?

Admittedly, I don't know a lot about the sport, but I've seen enough to know that its brutality seems an odd fit with the country's other efforts to gain exposure. Whether you like it or loathe it, there's no arguing it's violent – John McCain once described it as "human cockfighting" – and despite rule changes to make it more palatable to the masses, it's still banned in some U.S. states.

But its popularity is rapidly growing worldwide, and the UAE's interest is no passing fancy. Two weeks ago, a government-owned entertainment company bought a 10 percent stake in the company that owns UFC, and it has the support of a sheikh who is a jiu-jitsu blackbelt and an avid fan of mixed martial arts.

It may not fit ... but with backing like that, I'm guessing it will be a hit.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

An ambassador in every cab

All the cabbies there are Omani nationals – it's the law, one of them told me. In the UAE, your driver might be Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Indian or even Sri Lankan, but he will never, ever be Emirati.

The Omani drivers are proud of their jobs, and proud of their country. They want to show it off, and they want you like it. They want you to like them.

There are no meters in the cabs, and when you ask about it they just shrug and say don't worry, so it's up to you to negotiate a fare. Which is hard to do when you don't know where anything is, and don't know the going rate.

The rookie mistake (which I made, twice) is to not even try to set the price up front. You get where you're going and you offer what seems a fair amount, and they look at you with hurt expressions and say, "Really? Is that all? I thought you liked my taxi ..."

And when you finally draw the line and say "No more," they laugh and clap you on the back and say thanks. I think they they just enjoy the game.

Hussain certainly did. He's the guy in the photo, who drove me up and down the coast around Muscat, from the cool port neighborhood of Muttrah, where I was staying, south to the new Shangri La resort, at the end of a highway cut through the mountains for the sole purpose of getting to the hotel.

Hussain was a trip. He was funny and smart, and proud that he spoke five languages. We were walking down to the beach at the Shangri La and overheard a man and his son talking. "They're speaking Persian. Watch this!" he whispered to me, and called out to them. A five minute conversation ensued, mostly (he told me) about how impressed they were with his excellent Persian skills.

But he was proudest, without a doubt, of his English. He assured me that Americans spoke the best English, and he had trouble understanding the British and Australians, and don't even get him started on the Italians and the French ...

We had lunch together and he told me about his travels and his family, proudly showing off photos of his wife and daughter. He good-naturedly ribbed me about wearing shorts ("Why you not wear trousers? We won't be able to get into the palace!")

Every five minutes he would ask if I was OK, and if I liked his country, and every time I reassured him that yes, Oman is a fine place, he beamed proudly and nodded to himself, happy to have won over another tourist.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

48 hours in Oman

Two days in Oman, a weekend road trip to Muscat, 48 eye-opening hours, and then home again with so many good, unexpected stories, I don't know where to start ...

With Mr. Andy from Manila, the Filipino musician who interrupted Disco Inferno night at the Falaj Hotel to step up and deliver a searing rendition of the guitar solo from Hotel California?

With the Pakistani bar where men sat in rows of straight-backed chairs watching a trio of maidens from their home country perform come-hither dances, while the manager bought me a drink and explained, passionately, that nothing bad could happen to the girls because as soon as the bar closed they were whisked away and "locked up" until the next night's performance?

With that wicked cut I made on the eight ball that endeared me to my Omani pool partner and led to us commanding the table for five straight games?

With Olaf and Anna, the charming couple from The Netherlands who shared after-dinner wine and stories and a spectacular view from the rooftop restaurant at the Marina Hotel?

With the beauty of a place where the mountains do, literally, tumble into the sea, and the unassuming city finds purchase in whatever nooks and crannies it can?

Or with Mr. Hussain, the world's loudest cab driver, who practically bullied me into taking a sight-seeing ride but turned out to be the world's best tour guide, a proud speaker of five languages (I heard him use them all) and Oman's best PR agent?

I can't choose ...