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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thoughts on National Day

Back when I was in elementary school (or maybe it was early in junior high), we learned about the concept of ‘Nationalism,’ the belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one’s nation.

At the time, I didn't really think much of it.  I was the first generation daughter of an immigrant from Germany. An immigrant, who, as family lore has it, was so focused and headstrong about leaving Germany and getting to America from such a young age, that his mother actually learned English so that she could teach my Dad in hopes that it might help his chances of actually getting to the place. 

I guess because of my Dad’s story (and similar stories of immigration by my mother’s parents) it never occurred to me not to love my country -- deeply and enthusiastically. I was an All-American kid and speaking German in our house was verboten. I loved hot dogs and carried the American flag with a sense of honor in the Bicentennial Day Parade. I memorized the words to the Pledge of Allegiance as soon as my brain could manage it and took great pride in earning one of those Presidential Physical Fitness Awards complete with a patch and certificate and the president's signature on it (that I still own and cherish).

But fast-forward a few decades and take a big step back… back to my view of my home country from my new place in the UAE, and, well, it’s not all Bruce Springsteen and Fourth of July fireworks any more. These last few months have been a strain for my home country. A government in gridlock. The Ebola scare. The snow disaster in Buffalo and rains in California. Ferguson. Eric Garner. The never-ending shooting sprees. The Sony hacks. It’s been painful to watch from afar, as if every day brings a new reason to ask oneself, “What the hell is going on over there?”

And yet, I still love my country and my home with all my heart.

That said, there’s something about the breath of fresh air that is the United Arab Emirates.

Earlier this month we celebrated the UAE's National Day. This is the UAE equivalent of Independence Day, but without the secession (though there may have been a slight booting out of the Brits if you read through the lines of revisionist history). The United Arab Emirates is just forty-three years young (younger than me, gasp!) and yet the place has developed at an astonishing pace and is one of the world’s richest and most dynamic emerging powers in the world. (Whoa, I need to cut back on the Kool-Aid!).

Landmark Tower shows its UAE pride
The run up to National Day includes the appearance of cars being decorated with the flag and images of the nation’s founding father and leading sheikhs. There are massive light displays from buildings and along light posts, and large, landmark buildings draped in UAE flags (I'm talking flags that hang 15 stories). There are also fireworks. And air shows. And silly string.

Silly string?

Well, yeah.

Pretty much anyone who wants to partake in the revelry heads down to the Corniche on the day, where they watch the air show with some pretty kick-ass fighter jets, check out some military equipment on display, drive in an unofficial parade of pimped out cars, or stand on the curb and shoot silly string at each other while wearing funny hats, silly glasses and sequined and sparkly garb with UAE colors. 

Pimped out rides

It’s Fourth of July meets the Puerto Rico Day parade meets Carnival meets New Year’s Eve all wrapped up into one.

And the beauty of it?

All are welcome.

Doesn't matter the nationality, we all celebrate National Day in the UAE
You see, this is not an Emirati-only day. Down on the Corniche, the Emiratis are joined by the Pakistanis, the Filipinos, the folks from India, as well as the Brits, Aussies and Americans. We all celebrate, dress up and wave our UAE flags. And it’s exciting. I mean, in the days that led up to National Day, my heart swelled, my chest thumped. I was a kid all over again looking forward to the fireworks, flying UAE flags from the car and just generally getting pumped up.

Beyond the fun of the day, I guess the reality is that in a very short time I have developed a fair amount of national pride for the place. I know it isn’t perfect (I know, I know! But show me a country that is!). But it’s young and hopeful and so damn full of promise here, that’s it’s hard not to get caught up in the possibilities.

From the UAE, with love from the Air Show
So bring on the silly string while I send out hugs and well wishes to my true homeland.

I love you, and miss you, and hope with all my heart that we can get through this rough patch soon. 

My pimped ride

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Barefoot in the Desert

The early morning knock at the door came hard and furious. 

It was barely five a.m. after a night that that went into the wee small hours and included a wonderful Arabic meal, great conversation, star-gazing, and a scorpion sighting. It was time to get to the desert.

This is the weekly Friday morning ritual at Art Hub Liwa, where I have been fortunate enough to be selected as the ‘Writer in Residence” for the International Historical Memory Festival – an art event taking place throughout the month of October with more than ten artists from around the globe (Iran, Italy, UK, Thailand, Australia and more) exploring the history of the UAE and the Transformation Era through their works of art.

But I digress.  

One thing you need to know about me is that early mornings are not my thing (and that sound you just heard? That's the yowl of agreement from my husband). But this was one of those moments where I remind myself that there will be plenty of time to rest when I’m dead. Or that the early bird gets the worm. Or at least fresh coffee… or something.

Here I was in Liwa, with a chance to walk in the desert at sunrise thanks to Mr. Ahmed, the owner of Art Hub, and moreover, an Emirati gentleman who is affable, generous and eager to share his country and culture with all its visitors.

One by one, we emerged from our rooms set in a campus quad meets oasis setting that is the Art Hub Liwa facility, quietly took that fresh Arabic coffee offered, and piled into Mr. A's Land Cruiser. When one last straggler managed to emerge from their slumber, we raced against the sunrise to the point where Liwa Oasis fades into the foothills of the largest sand desert in the world – the Empty Quarter.  

While I had been to a desert before – Death Valley, the Sonoran Desert of Baja and Arizona, and even Moreeb Dune down the road and the red sands of Al Ain, this was the first time I actually WALKED in the desert rather than view it from the air-conditioned coolness of a car, rushing by at 50 mph or dune-bashing with quick stops to jump out for requisite photo-ops.

This time, we were communing with the place.

Mr. A led our early morning walk, instructing us to kick-off our footwear and go barefoot. To the east we could see the first break of light, while to the west, the moon began to sink behind the horizon.

Walking barefoot along the dunes gave me a whole different perspective. You see, the desert isn’t hard. It’s soft. My first step was taken gingerly (worried about glass shards and dangerous desert critters emerging from the sand). But the sand was pristine, cool and silky underfoot. And through this we walked nearly a mile with the sand giving way and at the same time standing firm with each step.

Early morning shadow play
Depending on the wind, the atmosphere, and probably a thousand other factors I haven’t even thought of, in the early morning hours in the Empty Quarter there is almost a dance – of color, light and shadow – as the sun rises the desert moves, moment by moment – and suddenly you realize that those peaks and dips are actually waves. They have motion. They are in constant flow.

Desert 'Waves"

It’s with this flow that you come to realize that the desert is alive. I mean vibrantly so. Up close walking in the dunes you’ll see the tracks of a gazelle, the slither marks of a snake, the scampering footprints of a gecko and tufts of green from desert plants bursting and flowering from the dunes. 

It’s hard to put the camera down on a walk like this. There’s just no comparison. I’ve been to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), and while I admit that it rained on the morning that we trekked out in the pre-dawn to capture the red sunrise that’s promised in all the Australian travel brochures, nothing comes close to seeing a desert sunrise in the Rub’ al Khali.

Into the Empty Quarter
As we walked, I felt like I was in a half dream state. Mr. A led us up to the top a large dune. And there, just over the ‘ledge’ was a stunning valley, full of desert shrubs and flowers, along with a bright and beautiful red kilim set atop the dune with a gorgeous breakfast spread.

We sat down and had our meal, quietly in awe as we looked over the deep valley full of green, thinking of the past people who lived here. Seeing it up close, its life and luster, I could see why people have made a place like this – with all its exterior harshness and secret softness -- their home. 

Sheikh Zayed Sulṭân Âl Nahyân once said, “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.”

In a way, Liwa represents one of the geographic hearts of Emirati history and culture. Over that weekend, I learned about the Liwa oasis, about the water that was once just five meters below the sand’s surface, and of how the Bedu lived and thrived in the region. Even though it was harsh, the desert was good to them, the harshness protected them. To them the desert was soft, at times cool and colorful, and always full of life.

Art Hub Liwa is beginning to offer weekend retreats at their compound at the edge of the Empty Quarter. Here’s an article about the Art Hub Liwa festival I’m currently participating in, and details on the overnight desert experience available. If you have the chance (and don’t mind getting up before dawn), it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences not to be missed in the UAE.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Happy Camel of Liwa

This gorgeous one-humped, white wonder lives out on the Art Hub farm in Liwa. A farm that has several rescued salukis, a few desert farm cats, a couple of horses, an ATV, a swimming pool and one gigantic sand dune.

This ain't no mirage, just camel at an oasis within an oasis...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On My Bookshelf: Mother Without a Mask

Recently I read MOTHER WITHOUT A MASK, a book about the early days here in the UAE (which can be picked up at many book shops or supermarkets in Abu Dhabi). It was written by Patricia Holton, a woman who came from New York (just like me), married a Brit (just like me) and somehow, through the confluence of passion, work and fate, ended up being deeply connected to an Emerati family during the 1970s and 80s in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

It’s a phenomenal read if you want to understand the Emerati people and culture as she goes into her experiences with this family as well as traditions, stories and wonderful and compassionate explanations about the Emerati people (and people of the Arabian Gulf). For instance, why women wear burkhas, why sometimes important information is only offered up on an 'as needed' basis (a great insight into how business negotiations are done) and what an Emerati wedding extravaganza looks like. 

Holton also spent her time in the UAE during the time of transformation, and she writes about the changes to the place and people with a wistful preciseness. Reading it gave me a real sense of just how quickly things have changed here in the past forty years.

One passage in particular really called to me. In it, the author is visiting an area in Oman with her Emerati ‘son’ and another family friend and is overwhelmed by the experience... by how distant it is from her other life:

“What was I doing there? How did I get there? How did it all happen? There I was sitting on a wall with a young Arab Sheikh and an old Omani villager, sitting on the wall of an open mosque under date palms growing out of the cleft of a mountain a thousand miles away from nowhere. Ten thousand miles away from home. What was that song? That American folk song? Ten thousand miles away from home? I was living it out.

Was I the same person who had once sat wreathed in her grandfather’s cigar smoke listening to talks of the Indians? Was I the same person who stood watching white clouds scud over a blue New England sky…? Was I the same person who lay disobediently in the dolphin net of a schooner watching the green Long Island Sound cut under the bows?

Where was that child? Absorbed? Forgotten? How did she grow older and find herself here? Strange. Strange. What was the touchstone of my life? How was the pattern weaving? Towards what end?”

Some writers (including myself) write and write and write until the story reveals itself. But sometimes the story is real life. For Holton, when the invitation came to host two young Emerati ‘royals’ in her London home one summer and then accepted an invitation to have the hospitality returned with an invitation to visit the son’s family in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, a whole new life story began to reveal itself.

I doubt she has gotten rich off this book (and she goes to great lengths to protect the family she spent time with), but what she has left is legendary. Young Emeratis look to this book as almost a history of the UAE’s transformation era and of earlier times.  And until recently it was the only book written by a UAE expat (though technically, she is probably best described as a former frequent VIP visitor).  

Tonight I find myself sitting in the ‘camp’ at Art Hub Liwa (I’m a writer in residence for the International Historical Memory Festival), watching the sun play on the sand dunes where a large scale art work of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan shines. There is comfort and community here. But there is also isolation, heat and ants nipping at my feet. Just out of view is the massive and massively gorgeous Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali). And suddenly I feel so minuscule, like the time I was in a plane flying 35,000 feet high over Japan looking down at waves washing along the Island’s shoreline trying not to freak out at being so high, so far away and so completely out of control.

It's times like this that I think about Patricia Holton (she’s become my hero of the moment). With a series of ‘yes’ decisions, she saw a new and exciting world begin to unfold to her little by little and suddenly a new chapter in her life revealed itself and became immense.  

I love that she realized in the moment that this was something different, and special, and wrote about it. And she had those scary ‘what the hell am I doing here' moments and wrote about those, too. Instead of feeling alone, when I read that passage I feel like I'm actually okay, and it's normal to feel this way. Afterall, we’re all in it together out here in what I lovingly call ‘the sandpit.’

Monday, October 6, 2014

September Update

As a freelancer, September has always been a tough month for me. For most others, I suspect September feels like a return from summer vacations and back to school, where the relaxed vibe of summer dissipates into an enthusiasm to get back to business and get things done. For a freelancer though, there can be a lag. New projects don’t usually trickle in until well past Labor Day (if at all), and if you work alone this can feel like being the last kid waiting to be picked up on the last day of sleep away camp.

While work for me is ‘optional’ here, there is a strong part of me that isn’t quite ready to fully live a life of leisure (I don’t need to work.. but it would be GREAT if I did). It’s not that I don’t like (or even love) the social side of things here in Abu Dhabi for myself. It’s easy to embrace the days with rounds of golf, beach outings, coffees, movies and lunches and stuff.

Maybe it’s the case of some good old German heritage work ethic guilts, or maybe it’s because without having children I feel the need to ‘produce’ or continue to contribute to my world in a significant way. But the reality is that I also make a crap housewife… barely cleaning and cooking, and grousing a bit at some of the errands I have to run.

I remember that very moment this September when, with little on the docket and taking steps to begin an all-out job hunt and launch my ‘personal brand’ (yes, I hate the term too), I looked into my closet for something to wear to a coffee gathering, wondering aloud, “What happens next?”

The answer to my question came just hours later. At a coffee morning a woman from a local art institution made an announcement that she was in search of a writer to join an artist’s retreat taking place out in Liwa.

I nearly jumped over tables to get to her.

Then later that day an editor from New York inquired about whether I’d be interested in participating in a press trip for media covering meetings and conventions (my tourism specialty) in Dubai…

With that, I was back in business (personal brand be damned) and I’ve been in a flurry of travel and activity since.

First came the much needed vacation for John to the amazing place that is Musandam Oman that we took (which I will blog about in depth shortly).

John swimming in the crystal blue waters of Oman.
Then came the five day business trip to Dubai, where for the first time in my life I joined a group of travel writers as a member of the press instead of the hosting ‘flack.’ Not only was seeing Dubai from a meeting and convention travel writer’s perspective with lots of great VIP perks amazing, but I also reconnected with some of my favorite industry writer friends. We visited top properties (Burj al Arab) and took in some ‘only here’ experiences – a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifia, a helicopter tour of the city, a private dhow cruise on the Dubai Creek, etc., etc.

Me strutting my press credentials following a helicopter tour of Dubai
After being accepted to the artist retreat, I turned around and packed my bags for the desert. For the month of October, I’ll be commuting out to the desert, interacting with artists from around the world (there are already artists in residence from Iran, Spain, France, Morocco, Italy, UK and Estonia), learning about the Empty Quarter and the UAE’s trans-formative years (1960s and 70s). 

Sunrise in the Empty Quarter with Art Hub artists
We’ll see what transpires on the writing front as a result… it may be a blog recording the artist’s and my experience, or modern re-workings of Arabic fables, maybe a new screenplay, or merely personal essays on my UAE experience – we’re not sure. As the administrators of the festival keep saying, it’s all an experiment. 

So, I’ll keep you posted. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Trip to Liwa Starts in Oregon...

At least for me.

Oregon was the first vacation that John and I took together as a couple. I remember going out to the sporting goods store wondering if it was a strange for a gal to be purchasing rain gear for her first romantic getaway with her guy. We were going to drive along the Oregon Coast and this included a visit to one of the region’s rain forests.

The trip was fantastic and it’s high on my list for people looking to do a scenic, even romantic, road trip, but one of the most memorable stories from that trip was my search for that rain forest.  On the day that we were to visit, we drove and the rain showers picked up. Then the showers turned to steady, if not heavy, rain. And the trees grew larger and the canopies thicker.

With my focus on the destination (and not the journey), I wondered aloud where this damn rain forest could be. Searching on the map for some sort of ‘entrance,’ I finally made John pull over at a visitor center and asked the volunteer on duty how to get to the rain forest.

He looked at me like I had three heads.

“You want to know how to get to the rainforest?”

“Yes,” I said, shaking the map.

The gentleman shrugged.

“You’re in it.”

I just didn’t get it. I wanted an entrance, something official to mark this rainforest that everyone was talking about. (Or that I was talking about.) 

When we got to a small piece of National Park land, I was finally satisfied, if not somewhat embarrassed. That’s because the trees and the rain and the landscape were just as beautiful, and just the same, inside the park as they were outside…

And that’s what it’s like going to Liwa.

Excuse me, is this the entrance to the Oasis?
When John suggested we take a weekend trip to the Liwa Oasis, I envisioned driving down the road that cut through the desert, reaching a gated park where we would pay our entry fees, be reminded to check out the gift shop and then stroll through a cool and shaded oasis that would have some water, a camel and a palm tree or two…

Have I learned nothing?

In fact, the Liwa Oasis is GIGANTIC. It’s sixty miles wide and is home to nearly 50 villages (one called Liwa) with a spread out population of over 20,000 inhabitants.

Liwa Oasis
Even more mind-blowing, the Liwa Oasis sits next to the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world. This massive moonscape of desert dunes is about 250,000 sq. miles (apparently that’s similar to France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined) and extends from the UAE through Saudi Arabia and into Yemen and Oman.

There isn’t much to do in Liwa beyond driving along the road which borders the oasis and driving into the dunes of the Empty Quarter, and I guess that's pretty much the whole point. 

The sand dunes from the Empty Quarter creep onto the roadway.

Did I mention it's only about 120 degrees out? But it's a dry 120...
This is not the tallest dune in the UAE, but it sure looks big.

Driving out to the Empty Quarter. Look guys, no traffic!
That said, it is a must to drive out to the massive dunes that lead to Moreeb Dune, the tallest dune in the UAE. There is also the gob-smacking Qasr Al Sarab Resort to check out (I’ll be requesting a stay there for a birthday or anniversary at some point!). The peak times of travel to Liwa are during the date palm festivals, the camel races, and during the camel beauty contest (Yes, that’s right, the Camel Beauty Contest). 

We stayed at the Tilal Liwa Hotel which is a nice property with a lovely pool in a great location for camel activities, but not so much for views of the Empty Quarter and checking out the town of Liwa. That's because it’s about 25 minutes north of Liwa toward Abu Dhabi so you’re not really in the heart of the dune/oasis divide. That said, lovely room, nice restaurant, kind staff.

During our visit we were days away from the end of Ramadan and we saw lots of big SUVs with luggage on top of vehicles coming from Saudi Arabia to celebrate Eid. Using the pool area was a young family from Saudi Arabia consisting of mostly young women.  Me in my ‘modest’ tankini and they in their ‘modest’ swimwear (imagine a lycra abaya, and yes, they call it a burqini), it was the youngest girl’s look that told the tale… she stared at me in my strange swimwear without hesitation and in the water we all sort of carefully avoided each other. It wasn’t that they had a huge problem with my swim costume, but I think they were as uncomfortable (or curious) with what I was wearing as I was with their get-ups. (Since then I’ve invested in a few beach cover-ups to avoid any similar situations where I might be viewed as immodest or just a bit out of the norm).

So, why did the trip to Liwa start in Oregon? Well, without that first successful road trip with John, I’d never be on this wild journey to places like Liwa. (So thanks, my love!)

I’ll be heading back to Liwa in coming weeks and look forward to the experience of communing more closely with the desert. More on that as in coming days, but for now here’s a video from the Camel Beauty Contest! 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Princess From A Car Park

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and we are well into the swing of all things post-summer here in the UAE. I’ve picked up my golf clubs again, have been doing a bit of freelance writing work (paid, apparently!) and reconnecting with the many expat wives here who flew the coop for the summer.

But the big story in the house this summer was our foster kitten, Parker. Named because we rescued her from a car park, she cleaned up pretty nicely. While I was completely smitten with this kitten, our other two kittens in residence were not.

After keeping Parker with us for two months of non-stop ball-playing (the girl loves to play ‘fetch’), non-stop swatting at the other kitties’ tails, non-stop trying to eat our food from our plates and non-stop purring all night long, we found her a new home.

One Thursday evening, one of John’s work mates came around and whisked little Parker off…

To Dubai.

In a Maserati.

Talk about a fairy tale ending... 

All this gal needs is a little tiara, right?

While I don’t know what the folks in her forever home are calling her, ’Princess Parker’ is a true rags to riches story and she is part of a young family that has three boys who love her to pieces and where she is the center of kitty attention in her fabulous new home.  YAY!

And even though many tears were shed (by me), we know in our hearts it was the right thing for all kitties and people involved. Our Mido and Tessa are back to their old selves (Parker made them both out of sorts) and we are all sleeping through the night again. Double YAY!

On a sadder note, early in September we came across a beautiful little dark gray tabby kitten who had taken harbor on the steps of our apartment building. Unfortunately, this poor gal had been hit by a car and was in very bad shape. We took her in for the night, fed and gave her a cool, safe place to rest. The next day we consulted with the vets and agreed that her suffering needed to end. That little darling passed over the kitty rainbow, but she will be remembered and missed.

We continue to check on the cats of the Corniche, though not as often as we’d like. But now that the weather is cooling, we are looking to be better about that. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

You've Got Your Ramadan Problems, I've Got Mine

It’s been two Saturdays since John and I sat on our couch looking down along Electra Street watching a flurry of activity as Ramadan commenced.  We learned enough to not be surprised that the supermarket was doing brisk trade, but when we saw the cars triple-parked, lights flashing, with a chaotic charge of kundara-clad men and abaya-fied women heading into Starbucks for one last caffeine fix before the holy month began, I have to admit, we had a bit of a chuckle.

Since the start of Ramadan, I have felt a bit guilty about laughing at that frenetic sight. The tone that came over my neighborhood by the very next morning when I said good morning to my normally gregarious doorman and normally friendly shop workers at the dry cleaners was certainly a more somber one. So when John sent me a link to a BBC article about #RamadanProblems, a new trending term on various social media platforms, I felt a bit of relief.

When I’m not fed for a few hours (say, five) my blood sugar crashes and I go into a state that the hubs and I have come to term ‘bitch hungry.’ 

Bitch hungry, anyone?

You probably know the signs. Cranky mood, spinning eyes, on the verge of a meltdown at the slightest of triggers -- like if someone merely looks at me funny. Oh, and when I’m 'bitch hungry,' I find humor in absolutely nothing. For this reason, John can usually be found with a stash of granola bars at the ready whenever we go on a road trip or are out and about for a few hours… just in case.

So when I read about these Ramadan problems, I was impressed. Not only could fasting Muslims manage to last fourteen plus hours without any food or water, but they could LAUGH about it as well.  That said, this is my first Ramadan in a Muslim country, and if I plant my tongue firmly in my cheek, I guess you could say, I have a few #RamadanProblems of my own…

This... Worse than the white man overbite.
For starters, every day for me is like one big blonde moment. I find I’m constantly checking myself before I go out. Am I dressed modestly enough? (Yep, shoulders and knees are covered.) Am I eating a candy bar? (No, it appears not. I’m good to go.) Am I sure I’m not eating a candy bar? (Yes, no candy bar.) Or walking down the street with a slice of pizza in hand? (Nope, nope, they only do that in NYC, I’m good.) Then I slip on out to meet a friend and as I wait in the searing sun I think, “Oh, I should just pop into this store and get a bottle of water, since it’s so damn hot out.” And then I think, "DOH!" Because I can’t drink water in public. And really, I do something like this every single day.

Another Ramadan problem I’ve been faced with is going to the supermarket.  In the morning it’s fine. There’s still a sense of sanity, but one day I made the mistake of going in the afternoon and it was mayhem. What I didn’t realize is that despite the fasting, somebody’s got to prepare the evening and morning meals (iftar and suhoor). So not only are you dealing with people’s mounting hunger (ever on the lookout for those spinning eyes), there are so many large-scale family gatherings that afternoons at the supermarket is like food shopping right before Thanksgiving or Christmas -- a complete madhouse (and a complete madhouse for thirty days!). And while I maneuver through it pretty well, allowing people to cut me at the produce line and not even bothering at the ‘deli’ counter and keeping clear of people with their carts overflowing with food, all I can think is how pathetic I must look with my small shopping basket of cat food tins and a medium-sized slab of salmon to cook dinner for two.

What’s really noticeable is that during Ramadan, Abu Dhabi is a sleepy seaside town during the day that becomes pulsing and alive at night. After sunset, if you’re Muslim, there are iftars to attend, shisha to be enjoyed, family to gather with, and shopping to be done (not for food, but for fun stuff like electronics and clothes). At two in the morning there’s bustling street traffic and the shops and the malls and even my dry cleaning shop closes around one in the morning.  I haven’t hit up the malls at night since I prefer to avoid the crowds, and we haven’t done iftar, because if you’re not fasting the feeling I get that it’s probably just like going out for an Arabic meal, buffet style – and I hate buffets. But still, having a strong memory of my ‘party’ days back in NYC, there is this sense of ‘missing out’ on the fun. FOMO, my friends call it. Fear of Missing Out. But when you’re not Muslim, you really can’t expect an invitation to the party.

So really, Ramadan for the non-Muslim in the UAE is just a series of small inconveniences in exchange for some bonuses as well. The pubs may not open until after sunset, but there’s no music allowed so you can have a decent conversation with your spouse or friends. You may have to watch out for the driver who floats from lane to lane delirious with hunger or sleep deprivation, but the roads are overall quieter and less traveled (during the day at least). And while there are very few restaurants or cafes open, I can still buy bacon by the basket full.  

Being here for Ramadan was discussed as a ‘really big thing.’ I guess what I’m finding is that while this is starkly different to anything I have ever experienced before… it’s not difficult, or unbearable. Of course, that's easy for me to say as I eat a cookie and a full English breakfast at whim, but out of sight.

What I have learned is that as different as we are in our faith and practice of it, we’re all just people, doing our thing, getting by with a bit of humor... so we’re really not that different at all.

I just hope I don’t run into my fasting, b*tch-hungry nemesis any time soon.  ;-)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Cat Capers in Khalidiyah

I’m lying flat on my back, core tightened, sweating my brains out with three other ladies nearby in similar poses. You may be thinking this gal must have moved on from belly-dancing to Bikram yoga classes. But you’d be wrong. You see, this is the appropriate pose for 'kitten spotting in a car park.'

It started with a few of John’s office mates, who alerted him to an abandoned kitten left in the lower level of a car park near his office. On Wednesday afternoon, there were text messages, phone calls and images sent my way. Should we, could we foster? There’s already strong interest in ownership… just a matter of working around trips planned, etc.  Long ago, even before I arrived, I said no fostering… fostering leads to ownership… we already have two… I didn’t want to become a cat hoarder.

But how easily I broke surprised me, I hadn’t even seen the little thing and already I was committing to helping out.

The plan was I’d go to the Expat Ladies' coffee morning (priorities, priorities), then head out to the car park to try to capture the kitten. When I mentioned it to a few new cat-loving friends, the next I knew we had an afternoon planned. Tea with a quick visit of one of the ladies' own new kittens plucked up from a nearby school and picking up of cat carriers and off we went on our mission with Maggie, Lynda and Rhie – all cat owners and very aware of the plight of kittens here in Abu Dhabi.

Kitty in the car park
But this tiny kitten, not much bigger than the palm of my hand, proved to be a far larger challenge than any of us thought.

After a first go that included not only lying on the ground in the sweltering heat of the underground car park, but mad dashes and sprints as this nimble creature easily out ran and out smarted us all darting and hiding in the engine and undercarriages of parked cars.

Who the hell dumps a single kitten in an underground car park?

Well, no one. But car engines are warm safe spots so many a kitten here in the Emirates inadvertently hitch rides, finding themselves zipped across town, separated from their kin, with just a small window of opportunity to get help, get to safety, and to become something more than ‘just another street cat’ in Abu Dhabi.

Luckily, with the Cat Ladies of Khalidiya (which included John dripping in sweat in his business suit) at the ready, we weren’t about to let that happen. After terrifying the little thing with our first attempt at rescue and feeling a bit dehydrated (and unable to drink water in public due to Ramadan) we went home and regrouped, before having another go…

Unfortunately, the second go was as unfruitful as the first. This time the Cat Ladies of Khalidiya found themselves in the strange position of being caught surrounding a high-end Audi SUV with towels and sheets at the ready for when the kitty dashed off. When the car’s owner showed up he was a bit startled by the scene… what the hell were these women doing surrounding and shrouding the car? And despite his kindness and empathy for our plight (he’s probably still scratching his head at the thought of us), when he drove off (even after checking the engine, etc.), we were convinced we had lost the battle… that this kitten would be hanging on for its life in another trip across town.

Dropping the ladies off, sans kitten, was tough. It’s one of those little reminders here in Abu Dhabi that not everyone has it easy in these parts. Some situations feel downright desperate, especially when nothing you do seems able to help. But a final pass by the garage that evening with John proved that this kitten was even quicker than the eye. There it was, nibbling at the food that had been left out for it by its many, many admirers and carpark Samaritans.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon, after John put in a few hours at work, that we gave it another try. This time I had a full arsenal -- a carrier, a laundry hamper, towels, cat toys, cat food and even calming sprays.We had the exact same scenario with an SUV, our thinking the cat was in its undercarriage and a woman who drove off… but after waiting fifteen minutes, John spotted the little smudge of gray resting between two air compressors, oblivious to John’s presence. I got the carrier ready and with a swift swoop John scooped the kitty up and we were off in a flash, bringing the kitten back to our flat.


Kitten in captivity
Today we brought the kitten to the vet where we met another woman who found an even younger cat in her car’s undercarriage. When she learned she couldn’t just drop the kitten off, she ranted a bit. The cat would have to go back out on the street, she yelled.

“Next thing you know we’ll be leaving here with two fosters,” I said to John.

But before that happened, the woman left in a huff, cat in tow. We had our examination, and when we fell back out the door the woman had come back, looking a bit more prepared to take the care of her undercarriage kitten. 

“She chose you,” I offered. 

The woman smiled. From the look of her and her friend, I knew she relented. Another cat lady born. I’m not sure why this woman gave in, or why I gave in on the fostering front. I suspect it’s because it’s Ramadan. Everyone, Muslim or not, has thoughts of being a bit more caring, a bit more flexible, a bit more giving on their mind.

Anyway, our little thing, it turns out, is a girl. John has named her Parker because of her carpark beginnings and her Arabic name is Ooday which means ‘fast runner’ (great suggestion, Lynda and Rhie!). She’s already about eight weeks old. She hisses as well as she runs, so there’s going to be a slow introduction process for her and me and John… and later down the road to our kittens.

This gal cleans up well!
“It’s only temporary,” I have to remind myself while thinking that in reality, it’s not that big a deal, to be a professional cat fosterer while we’re here (especially if I’m not working). One thing at a time, I guess. For now, we’re plying her with warm comfy spots in a room all her own, along with plenty of water and kitten food and kindness.

It's kind of funny to me, how situations unfold here. One minute you're having coffee, the next on a rescue mission, bonding with good people while doing a good deed. 

I guess this goes down as a good week. We saved this scrappy little fighter, my abs feel tighter, and I’ve made a few more cat lady friends. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Ramadan Knock-Knock Joke


Who’s there?


Ramadan who?

Sorry to say, I don’t have a punchline. It’s just that Ramadan is knocking on our door and it’s no joke. It's serious. There is no Muslim equivalent to being a ‘Christmas Catholic’ here. People are preparing, discussing, and fleeing town. The holy month begins here on Saturday evening, with the first full day of Ramadan on Sunday.  And John and I are here to see our way through it.  

As most know, Ramadan is a time when Muslims around the world fast during daylight hours. But what I didn’t know is that the month of Ramadan is not about atonement, and the fasting that Muslims do is not about looking for forgiveness for sins. It’s actually about living more simply, self-reflection and becoming closer with Allah. So, this is not exactly a somber time, even though I suspect I would feel a bit somber if I had to abstain from food and water for 14 hours a day for 30 days. In fact, the word ‘celebrate’ is used a lot when referring to Ramadan and there are sparkly lights being put up all around the city that reminds me a lot of… Christmas.

A light display in our neighborhood

Christmas? Well, that’s confusing, right? Let’s confuse things more. Because, right now at the supermarkets, there are heaploads of foodstuff on display complete with point-of-sale promotions, discounts on staple items and festive decorations that say “Ramadan Kareem!”

But it’s all about fasting, right? Yeah, but, after the fasting comes the celebrations.  This is where we get into Iftar, which are these large elaborate meals that ‘celebrate’ the breaking of the fast.  Iftar meals seem to be large banquet-style affairs or family meal gatherings, usually set up in a tent. So far I’ve seen iftar tents set up at hotels, in town squares next to a mosque near Hatta a few weeks ago, and even next to a private villa in our neighborhood. John and I have even been invited to an Iftar hosted by his company. (I can’t wait.)

Of course, being non-Muslim, I haven’t bought anything to prepare. I wonder if it’s like not buying milk and bread in advance of a snowstorm, or not having flashlights and a generator at the ready in advance of a hurricane. Right now our pantry is not exactly stocked (I’m kind of a buy-as-you-go kind of gal) and I feel like I should be squirreling away food, putting together meal plans and hoarding a supply of pork products or at least a package of dates. Oops?

As an expat newbie in a Muslim country, I’ve asked everyone from my seasoned expat golfing ladies to my taxi driver what it all means and how it will impact my life. On the surface it seems simple enough. Work hours are shortened. Restaurants, cafes and food courts at the shopping malls are closed during daylight hours and shops may or may not be open. If they are, the hours may be odd. The other thing I was told is that dress needs to be really kept in check, so any knee-baring skirts will be put into the back of the closet for a few weeks (as a rule, I generally don’t wear shorts outside of the home or on the golf course). Oh, and there’s also the issue of food and drink. No food or drink (even water) out in public during the fasting hours.

Seems simple enough, right?

Well… yes and no. The challenges begin to dawn on you when you start preparing for your day-to-day activities…

For instance, Sunday is a golfing day for me. Usually I get up, throw on my golf shorts/skirt, crack open a diet coke and grab a granola bar and depart the apartment with both in hand. Then I drive to the course, radio (sometimes) blaring with one of the morning shows from Dubai. Out on the course, I’ll drink lots of water, eat a pineapple Popsicle, and then meet the ladies for coffee or tea and maybe a bite of lunch in the clubhouse before heading home.

But this week, I will wake up earlier so that I have time to eat in my home (if I’m seen drinking water or eating in public or even in my car, I could be arrested, fined or publicly scorned). I’ll put my golf shorts on, but will throw a long skirt over it as well. In the car, I’m not sure if radio stations will be playing music (music is not allowed), so Lady Gaga may be on hold for a while and I’ll have to be more mindful of drivers who are fasting as there are warnings about increased accidents and road rage. As for what happens on the golf course, it’s anyone’s guess. I suspect thirst will be an issue and forget the Popsicles, and it’s only about 104 degrees here at Midday at the moment. Back at the clubhouse, they may serve food and drink, but it may be in a partitioned area away from any public view. Or it may be closed until the evening hours. I just don’t know.

When I asked the taxi driver the other day how this will all go down, he responded, “It will be extremely quiet. No one on the roads. Everything shut down during the day.” I asked if he will continue working during the day since the hubs relies on cabs to get to and from the office. He shook his head. “I will stop work from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m.” He explained that he will rest during this time, waiting for his fast to end… which means if my husband hangs out at the office, I may become his personal chauffeur for the month. In the evening, “everyone will be out, the streets, the malls, the hotels will all be busy, people will be everywhere.”

I’m not sure how this will all shake out. In the big scheme of things, this isn't going to be too big a deal. At least I hope that's the case. And there are several things I like about Ramadan. I like the idea that fasting (and also refraining from water, caffeine, cursing, smoking and a few other things) is a way to get closer to one’s faith versus what I originally thought was some sort of self-punishment. I also like that getting closer to Allah (or any god or higher power) is seen as something to celebrate. I’d like to believe that if there is a god, then s/he needs to be a kind and generous one. I also like the focus on celebrating iftar with others, whether it be family, friends or friends you just haven’t met yet at the iftar tent. The sparkling lights are nice, as are the small acts of kindness and generosity that also go with Ramadan. Charitable giving is in focus during Ramadan, as well as just being kind to your neighbor.  And just like Christmas, there are megasales going on, if you're up for going to the mall at 10 in evening…

Anyway, I suspect this slowed pace will provide for some introspection and stock-taking of our own as well, but for now I do have a few Ramadan projects:
  • John and I have a ‘playlist’ of television shows and dvd box sets we are going to watch. Apparently, our Muslim counterparts will be doing the same, as AIrabic television shows will premiere their newslate of shows, with series’ running through the month and ending at Eid. (Fascinating!)
  • I’ve got to clean my computer files, and rejigger my email folders. This could take weeks.
  • I’m going to begin writing a new script. It would be amazing if I could jam out a first draft in thirty days, but that’s not going to happen, I just don’t write that way. At least it will get started. 
  • I will be focused more on developing my writing life here. I need to develop a schedule, set some goals, treat the writing like a very important but (for now) unpaid job. Until a paid job appears or I sell a screenplay. I will continue to job hunt in the travel/tourism sector here.
  • I’m already reading more, but I will read EVEN more! I’m aiming to read 15 scripts in 30 days and finish reading two books. 
  • Finally, I am going to attempt to construct a cat tree for my two furry housemates. I think our apartment suits them very well, but they are tree dwellers and need high perches, of which we have none at the moment.  I tend to start and not finish projects like this, so I will be mindful to only start what I know I can finish. This will take planning, and tools, and possibly the use of a saw and staple gun (thank god for that upholstery class I took last year!).

I will play less golf, socialize less during the day (lots of people have left for the summer anyway) and not go to the beach (can’t drink water unless I sneak into a toilet stall). I will shop early in the morning instead of in the afternoon as I usually do. We’ll likely not go out much in the evening, though we’ve been told our local will be open after 7:30 p.m. each evening.

I’ll keep you all posted on our Ramadan experiences. In the meantime...

Ramadan Kareem!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Road Trip: It's Getting 'Hatta' Here

It's getting hot here. Not in the way where you're psyched to be hanging out with your friends at outdoor cafes in little tank tops and drinking rose wine full of carefree thoughts and wispy feelings. No. It's not like that at all.

It's more like a worry, the heat. I'm trying to figure out how to get around it... how I'm going to walk to the supermarket without keeling over dead, or spontaneously combusting. It's not like I didn't know this would come. It's just that I have never actually 'felt' 111 degrees in the shade. Now I have, and it's only getting hotter. And for a gal who always loved summer, gets into a funk when it ends and has been known to curse all other seasons, all I can say is - be careful what you wish for...

So, in advance of the heat, John and I set out to the Hatta Pools in Dubai/Oman with a group called the Sandpit Hash House Harriers (best described as a 'social' running club). It was their last overnight excursion for the season and seems to be a much looked forward to annual event. We were in.

The drive from Abu Dhabi -- taking the scenic route -- was just about three hours. The drive included crossing the border into Oman in Al Ain, driving along the stunning Al Hajar mountain range.

The road to Hatta. Glad it's paved!
Instead of camping like we did when we helped celebrate the Al Ain's 30th year of hashing antics in the desert, we took up residence at the Hatta Fort Hotel, a darling spot with the 'throwback' feel of a family resort in the Poconos that has been transplanted to the Middle East. There was a fish pond. Bungalow rooms. Continental cuisine (onion soup, prawn cocktail and flambes made tableside). Two swimming pools. Welcome glasses of orange juice. And just about the nicest staff ever.

But the hotel wasn't why we were there. We were there for the wadis... the dried river beds and carved out rocks with water still running through them to explore. We met up with about about 15 other hashers and set off, caravan-style through the town of Hatta then pulled off to the pools... then we parked, got our act together and floated down the first of two wadis...

We lined up along a rock-carved slide and each took turns plunging in, wearing our shorts, t-shirts and footwear. From there we kind of swam along until it got shallow, walked a bit and then plunged in again.

[Okay, okay... here's the thing. The guidebooks and stuff warn Westerners about bringing valuables to the pools. We read that cars get broken into, passports and wallets stolen, etc. Also, since I was going to be wading or swimming in the wadi, I couldn't bring my camera. Therefore, if you want a good sense of the Hatta experience, please refer to this uber-cool video below...FAST FORWARD to 1:45 for wadi wading.]

After the first wadi, we had a bit of a regroup and then proceeded to the second section. It was here that I decided not to continue on. Apparently there was a rather large narrow jump to maneuver, and quite frankly, like the guidebooks said, the water was, sadly, polluted with empty water bottles, orange rinds and food wrappers. All I could think was how sad that such a beautiful spot could become so... trashed. It's like another 70s throwback, how folks handle their litter here.

After the pool adventure, it was back to the hotel and a bit of a hanging out for the evening.

Then the next day, John and I took another road excursion... hoping to make our way up to Fujairah. Armed with our cell phones and map, we hit the road and followed the PAVED parts until they turned into UNPAVED parts.

Of course, this left me nervous. There were lots of rocks so I was worried about changing flat tires in the 115 degree heat. And even though there were homes here and there, I don't know, it kind of made me nervous in the same way that driving down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the U.S. might feel... like something could go terribly wrong.

Luckily for us, the only danger we encountered were these 'free range' camels...

And goats...

But here was the road... [It's times like this that I thank god my mother isn't on the Interwebz!]

Deliverance, Middle Eastern-style.

When we finally made it back to civilization, we headed to Al Hayl Castle just outside of Fujairah. 

There, we were met by a 'guide,' who, to be honest, seemed to be making things up as he went along. "This place, for people shower... shampoo, razor, conditioner." Hmmmm... 

Still, the place, which we still can't determine whether its 300 years old (according to the guide) or built in 1930 (according to a brochure that was given to us as a memento by our guide), was pretty cool. 

The fort at Al Hayl Castle

John taps his fingers, he doesn't suffer poor tour guide information gladly...

Our guide explains his wealth of useful information, 'The big man uses the big door, the children, the little door...' Really, we didn't have that much of a problem with this, except for the pretty aggressive shakedown for a larger tip than we had given after the tour...

Anyhoo, back on the road, we hit up downtown Fujairah... which looked like what downtown Abu Dhabi might have looked like twenty years ago...

Downtown Fujairah
A drive along the coast of the Indian Ocean (the waves were rough because of a tropical storm that had been heading to the area)....
Indian Ocean, Fujairah's Corniche

Then back to the hotel and poolside in the late afternoon.

Hatta Fort Hotel...
Where you can hang at the pools, play mini golf, hike the on-site mountain top,
check out the koi pond and peacocks... or do nothing at all. 

Our bungalow.
It was a lovely weekend and one of the things we've been told is that it's important to get out of town every few weeks. Not only because there is so much to see, but because a little decompression from Abu Dhabi 'city/work life' can be a very good thing.

The town of Hatta.
 Til next time!