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.