Big Silver Taxi

Taxiing around Abu Dhabi is a weekend norm; fares are reasonable and the zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving renders it a necessity if you plan to have a drink or three. At this point, I’ve been in well over one hundred taxis. Easily identifiable, most taxis are silver with a yellow sign:

How to get a taxi? For me, Sky Tower across the street is where I often head. My building, Arc, is now actually connected to Sky via an enclosed overhead bridge, which is nice because prior to this we had to play real-life Frogger while dodging traffic across the multi-lane street outside our building. Waiting in line at Sky has become a bit tedious due to scorching temps, recent sandy days, and near 100% humidity. So lately, I’ve been calling for a personal pickup. Fares are reasonable- the meter starts at 3.50dhs or $1US; calling for door-to-door service doubles that fee, but is well worth keeping my hair from tripling in size and my makeup from melting into my already half-blind eyes.
Once you’re a regular, the whole call process is automated. The company sends a reply text within 10 minutes that includes the driver’s name, mobile number, and ETA. Sometimes the wait is 5 minutes, other times longer. Last Thursday night mine was 15; I decide to wait downstairs in case he’s early. The 15-minute mark passes, then 20. I take out my phone to call the driver and my phone’s ringing. I answer to an automated message: “The driver is waiting at your requested location. Press ‘1’ for the wait to continue. I press ‘1’ and then call the guy’s cell. He insists he’s in front of the building and I insist that, whoa, I too am also in front of the building. So now we kick into Abu Dhabi mode.
Me: “You’re at Arc Tower on Reem Island?”
Him: “Yes, Arc Tower.”
Me: “Are you at the front of the building where the sky bridge is?”
Him: “No, no bridge.”
Me: “Are you in the car park?”
Him: “No, I’m out front.”
Me: “Do you see the three really tall buildings with the penthouse that connects them at the top?”
Him: “Yes, I am there.”
Me: “OK, you’re next door at Gate. If you drive around the corner to the next building you‘ll be at Arc.”
Him: “Ohhhh, yes. I am at Gate. I’ll come to Arc now.”
So he picks me up and then has to call my cell to verify that I’m the person he’s supposed to pick up. Like at that point there was any doubt.
One problem with taxi drivers is that their English isn’t always the best. I know, I know, their English is better than my level of whatever their native language is, so I’m patient. Second, because of the lack of street names and addresses here, you better have some sort of GPS on your phone if you’re unsure of how to reach your destination because odds are they don’t have the tools to help. Third, drivers usually work in 12-hour shifts, so body odor and other smells can easily get trapped in the vehicle, making for a breath-holding ride. You just never know.
This guy began without any strikes against him. He was semi-understandable. I knew he wasn’t a newbie when I informed him that I needed to go to the Park Rotana and he asked, “To Cooper’s?” Good call, my man. And the big bonus… odor-free car.
So I settle in for 15 minutes of “Where you from? Where YOU from? How long have you been here? And you? You teach? You like it here? You have family here?” Pretty much the usual conversation. Meanwhile, I’m slumping in the back seat as he alternates between accelerator and brake, hmmm, maybe three hundred and fifty times. I think I’m gonna be sick.
Part of the reason the roads can get messy is this: Let’s say you’re on a highway that has a posted speed of 100km/h. Generally trucks are allowed to go 80, similar to rules at home. But in Abu Dhabi, if there’s a way to complicate something, it will be done. In a taxi, a verbal warning is triggered if the driver goes over the posted speed (Please slow down. You are “over-speeding.”), but when the speed is 100 km/h, regular cars are allowed to drive 120km/h before hitting the ticket zone. Generally, many traffic problems could be mitigated if faster drivers used the left lanes and slower ones used the right, but that courtesy isn’t practiced here. Throw in 1) those who don’t even hit the posted speed limit and 2) the far-left Emirati lane (for insane speeders who are aware of camera locations and slam on the brakes just before passing them to avoid tickets, then speed back up as quickly as if they never slowed down), and the speeds of cars on a single road can vary by almost 100km/h.

speed tower

speed tower

This guy was a weaver. Like me, he didn’t appear to enjoy driving slowly, so he switched from one lane to the next in an attempt to free us from driving behind those who had no desire to put the pedal to the metal. But every time his over-speeder message came on, he had to slow down. Taxis can be ticketed at any time, not just via the dreaded speed camera.
So it was speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down. Alllll the way there. Blech.
Finally, we reach the hotel. Now, tips here are not expected but they are appreciated. I usually just round up to the nearest bill, whatever that may be. Let’s say my fare is 27dhs; the driver will get 3 (which is about $1US). It’s actually acceptable to give nothing, so 3 is good. The guy’s happy and gives me his card and says I can call him directly in the future. I told myself long ago that I’d befriend a driver who didn’t annoy me. So far nobody has measured up. This one failed with the stop and go technique. It occurred to me that this is a metaphor for another aspect of my life. Yes, it definitely is. But I’m looking on the bright side. I may not have found my steady taxi driver this weekend, but there’s always tomorrow.

This Is How We Do It

The school year officially ended this afternoon!! One last post is in order before I head to the airport in a few hours.

The folks on this page… what can I say?! I was fortunate to meet up with them upon or shortly after my arrival last August. Each has contributed to making this journey an incredibly fun and semi-sane experience. Swapping teacher anecdotes (though some work in other fields), hosting dinner parties, meeting up at our beloved Cooper’s on Thursday nights, Friday brunches, beach days, golf outings, safaris, concerts, birthday celebrations, etc. They’ve all helped make this experience bearable when it wasn’t, and spectacular when it was.

A mix of characters from England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Canada, and the US. All up for adventure. As luck would have it, the majority of us will return in August after we go our separate ways to recharge abroad and/or back home. Cheers to all- safe travels and enjoy your summer!

And yes, I do have better pictures, but instead of perfect smiles I thought I’d show everyone what we’re really like outside of work. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Forever Young

As far as birthdays go, this one rocked! I’m not much into aging, though when I whine about it I’m often asked if I’d prefer the alternative. No, I wouldn’t, but life is moving quickly! I think it’s even harder for my parents to watch their kids inch closer toward AARP eligibility. Ack!

I awoke yesterday morning and ran to my breakfast bar to open presents; my friend Jen had brought them with her when she came to visit in April. My sister sent me a bracelet and the girls made a photo album chronicling our Abu Dhabi adventures over Christmas. Add to that a slew of thoughtful gifts given to me by the wonderful people here (see you in the fall, Dave Matthews Band!), and I started the day off right!

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The celebrations actually began about 10 days ago since Kevin and I combined our birthday party.

Me & Kevin

A group of us went to Stratos, a revolving restaurant, for a sunset happy hour. Sadly, I must admit that it made me a little queasy to spin ever so slowly for two hours while drinking cheap sparkling wine but- YOU KNOW ME- I forced myself to have an enjoyable time. It looks like only the girls were in a picture-taking mood that night.

Me, Ruth & Ciara

Me, Ruth & Ciara

Ruth, Ciara, Maeve & Dani

Ruth, Ciara, Maeve & Dani

Fiona & Ashley

Fiona & Ashley

Then last Friday I went to the shooting range at the Armed Forces Officers Club (which actually deserves its own post someday):

Caracal Shooting Paper

before heading out to an “all-you-can-eat-and-drink” 4-hour Mexican dinner with a small group of friends, including Bettina and Shannan. They get credit for giving me this lovely birthday hat among other treats.

Birthday Photo

Bettina and Shannan had bought a Groupon for a night at Emirates Palace Hotel and invited me to the pool on Saturday. Whoa. Cool stuff. After the year we had, we spent hours double-noodled in the lazy river “complaining” how we had to steer clear of the rocks or how the chlorine was getting in our eyes when we tried to duck under the waterfalls. Rough life. But we agreed we earned it the hard way!

Room “key”

Emirates Pool

Emirates Palace Sun Loungers

Emirates Palace Water

Then of course my official birthday landed on a Sunday, the first day of our work week. Boo. But Craig took me to a super-nice dinner at a reastaurant in the St. Regis Hotel called 55&5th, which I highly recommend. It’s expensive even with the Entertainer app but well worth it. Definitely the best meal I’ve had here to date.

Birthday Dinner

I predict the next 8 weeks of my life will be the most stress-free of any I’ve experienced as an adult. With Ramadan beginning by the end of this week (Muslims fast during the day for a month and non-Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight hours) work has been shortened to half days. The students are currently taking one exam per day so all we have to do is grade the English exams and proctor those in other subjects. I’m as close to being on vacation as one can be while still working.

So thanks to all for making this a great birthday! And thanks for making this a great birthday. Or did I already say that? I’m old and tired. But it’s either that or the alternative so cheers to another year!

Life Is a Highway

Today’s post is dedicated to my daughter Kate’s opportunity to work at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which took place in France over the past several weeks.
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Truth be told, I was a little upset that she hadn’t opted to study abroad during her junior year in college. Back in the day, I myself spent two summers studying French at Université Laval in Québec, and I’m all for getting out there to see how others live (the answer to that, according to most places I’ve visited, is that many people in the world live MUCH more simply than we do in the U.S.). I will always remember the great adventures and forever friends that the opportunity afforded me. But the best part of leaving home for an extended period of time is when you realize that another place has become your home away from home- you can jump on the bus, get yourself from here to there, pass familiar faces on the street, and know what you’re going to order in a restaurant because you eat there every Friday. In other words, you live your normal life, just elsewhere. Heck, I’m doing it again now while teaching in the UAE and I’d like to think my kids have enjoyed flying by the seat of their pants with me enough to do it on their own. The fact that Jenna’s currently in Europe with her friend Kat’s family thrills me to no end. Multiple countries, parental supervision, what’s not to like?
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Text from Jenna: Mountains in Austria.
Me: Are the hills alive with the sound of music?
Jenna: Duh.
Me: That’s my girl!
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When Kate told Jenna and me about her opportunity to apply to the Cannes program, we freaked out. OMG. We love everything French. We speak fluent Franglais! I’m lucky she brought it up at all, because I realized she didn’t comprehend the magnitude of this opportunity. I’LL GO IF YOU DON’T!” I screamed via Skype. After interviews and paperwork, she was a confirmed participant. Fast-forward a few months and my baby was on a plane to Nice with 13 other girls from Grand Valley State University; most are Hospitality & Tourism Management majors but a few are in Public Relations. Some of the girls hadn’t ever left the country, but I knew they were in for the experience of a lifetime. Although I’m halfway around the world, hours and hours and hours of phone time confirmed my confidence that Kate could prepare herself for this trip, so I was super-excited for her.
Once the girls arrived, they were constantly on the go. From orientation, training, working at the pavilion membership areas, beach screenings,
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yacht parties- yeah, I know it sounds rough, but they worked their tails off, often well into the night. All parents were kept informed and updated by Dr. Lorie Tuma, who has headed this program at various schools for five years.
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She blogged, emailed, and posted on Facebook daily so we didn’t have to worry about our daughters’ whereabouts or safety. I can see from the girls’ Facebook posts and Instagram photos the love and respect they have for Lorie and her tireless efforts to get all of them up and running quickly in addition to ensuring that everything ran smoothly for the duration. We’ll all be forever grateful for her successful efforts!
Below are some photos of Kate and the others while they were hard at work, living out an experience that I’m sure will positively impact the course of their thinking, their careers, their lives, and the way they view opportunity.
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Brushes with many of the rich and famous didn’t hurt, either.

Salma Hayek

Salma Hayek

Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler

Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts

Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey

And here’s a “behind the scenes” video Kate compiled, which also contains footage of their free day in Monaco.

All I know is things change constantly. I’m here in Abu Dhabi and every few days I have a reality check, whether it concerns the good, the bad, or the ugly. Life is not about being a “traveler” because nothing beats having a home base; it’s about filling yourself with what makes you happy.
Having the supposed means to do something should not be a factor. Yes, loans suck. It’s my job here to chip away at those as much as I possibly can. But studying abroad is often less expensive than going to college in the United States. So to my kids’ college friends reading this- try it, go for it. Many of my friends’ children have jumped at the chance to experience life in a new place; some of them have incredible internship opportunities that will open doors for their future careers. My friend Deb is hosting a foreign-exchange student in her home for the 2015-2016 school year, the coolest part being that her parents did the same when we were in high school.
Life is weird. But you only get one shot. And that great big world out there? It just got a little smaller for my kid.
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Now, as soon as Kate wakes up I anticipate the return of our hours-long phone conversations. Hopefully in French, but I’m not holding my breath.

And We’ll Never Be Royals…

… but it sure is fun to pretend every now and then.

In true UAE fashion, Emirates Palace is over the top. A seven star luxury hotel, the Palace has delighted visitors for the past ten years. Sadly, its status as the “world’s most expensive hotel” has been lost and its current billing is the “world’s second most expensive hotel,” a title I’m sure the locals despise as the people live to showcase their enormous wealth.

Either way, this hotel oozes glitz and glamour. Emirates Palace boasts 114 domes and over 200 fountains, and is replete with gold, silver, marble, glass mosaics, and more than 1,000 Swarovski crystal chandeliers.
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Jen & me out front

Jen & me out front

Visitors are free to roam many areas (though the top floor of the hotel is reserved for Gulf Arab royalty only), so it’s nice to stop in with guests and take a photo in front of the gold ATM and/or the world’s most expensive Christmas tree.
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My December visitors

My December visitors

My first visit to the Palace was in the evening, so I was able to pop into Étoiles, a nightclub that starts rolling around midnight. Because we went at 10pm it was nearly empty. We bought a drink, but after learning the charge to score a table we decided just to walk around the indoor/outdoor club until we finished.

The second drink I bought in the hotel was last weekend with Kathryn, my fourth visitor (I love guests!). I had walked past Le Café every time I had gone to the Palace, so after hearing numerous rave reviews of the cappuccino with gold flakes, I decided to imbibe.
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Since Kathryn was only in Abu Dhabi for two days, we had to make smart decisions about what to see and do in order to maximize her weekend here, and we both agreed this was a win. When the cappuccino arrived, we took photos and marveled at our trays for at least five full minutes before digging in. The presentation, which included a date and a macaron, justified the cost (58dhs/$16 US) and the taste was wonderful as well.
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Treating myself to a few good things in life on the weekends makes the weekdays bearable. Come see for yourself for a taste of upscale living! Even if the UAE isn’t on your travel radar, you can still get a glimpse of Emirates Palace in the movie Fast and Furious 7, along with many other Abu Dhabi landmarks. But I suggest you just make a point to visit me and I’ll take you on a personal tour, gold-flaked cappuccino and all.
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Oouuud, That Smell

Me, eight months ago: “OMG, that overpowering smell is making me sick to my stomach!!”

A newbie to the UAE, I knew nothing about oud at the time. My, how I’ve grown. Now, not only do I know what it is and where it comes from, the scent can be comforting- except when the hall monitors at school occasionally burn it in enclosed spaces (please don’t cause a fire; have you seen us try to execute a fire drill? Not sure how we’d get out of an actual burning building). Fighting my way down the hall while waving the smoke out of my face, I can’t contain myself and mutter, “Thank God I’m not pregnant or this stuff would make me heave.” And yes, I know I’m a bit old to be making pregnancy comments but I was so sick with the girls that I haven’t quite recovered from the mental damage that resulted. Luckily for you, dear daughters, I happily admit you were both well worth it.

But back to today’s subject. Certain distinct smells permeate the Middle Eastern air. There is the basic body odor (not everyone, but those who choose to flaunt it certainly possess an abundance, especially with the rising temps). There are the myriad scents of shisha, which can range from fruity varieties such as apple and grape to mint and cappuccino; I’ll definitely take this over body odor any day. But the most prevalent scent is a perfume known as oud. There are essentially two types, oud and bakhoor. Oud is basically wood chips (agarwood from certain Asian trees) that have a distinct smell and are used as a kind of perfume for both men and women.
Oud Chips
Pure oud is burned by Arabs; the aroma from the smoke emanates and becomes ingrained in their clothes, skin, and hair- kind of like when you return home from camping and realize everything you own exudes a pungent campfire odor. There is also bakhoor, which looks like small, round coals and is actually a mixture of scents.
Bakhoor coals
I tried to get a lesson at a shop in the mall last week but if you understand that there can still be a language barrier even when two people are speaking English, then you’ll know that I still had questions after my conversation with the salesperson. Where to turn? My two best students. I can at least understand most of what they say.

I asked the girls to describe the smell. Answers ranged from “Best smell in the world,” “Kind of like wood but with perfume,” and “It has different smells depending on what you buy.” Thanks for the clarification on that! First, I’d say it’s a heavier, darker smell, certainly not light, airy, or fruity. It’s smoky, musky, and/or woody. Once you get used to it, the smell is fine unless you’re trapped in a space where it’s burning or in a classroom where girls are constantly spritzing themselves. The girls said they can buy oud in a lotion form, add water to it, and spray it on like perfume; I’ll take their word on that. There is also perfume itself, which I’m sure is pricey. In addition, the girls said they can run the wood through their wet hair to make the scent last several days. I don’t think my students actually do this or I would notice, but I guess it’s not an uncommon practice.

Both oud and bakhoor, in coal or wood chip form, require the use of a medhan, the vessel in which it burns.
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Just like shisha, essential accessories include charcoal, tongs and a lighter/small torch. This country’s big on lighting things up.

As I usually try to equate the unknown here with something back home, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the closest thing this reminds me of is patchouli- except this is a widespread regional love whereas patchouli is most revered by Deadheads, a small group compared to Arabs as a whole.

As it’s so difficult to describe, I’m contemplating bringing some home, though after being overwhelmed by it in the malls over Christmas break my daughters will kill me if I burn it in the house. I have another year to decide, so I’ll revisit the idea next spring. Right now, I’m convinced if I ever get a whiff of this smell once I’m home for good, it will bring back happy memories. Especially if I block out the one where I die in a hallway fire at school.

Good Morning, Vietnam!

I’m back from five days in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon with Ashley.
Let’s begin:
The visa process was heinous. We had submitted our documents to the company we’d booked two tours with (TNK, otherwise fabulous) and they emailed us a paper that we thought would make obtaining the visa upon arrival a breeze. Wrong. The paper meant nothing. At the airport we were each given a form to fill out that required a 2×2 photo that, miraculously, Ashley and I both had in our wallets since we need photos for almost everything in the UAE. A 30-day visa costs $45US or $1,000,000VND, which we didn’t have and couldn’t get because the currency exchange and ATMs are all on the other side of passport clearance, which you’re unable to cross unless you have the visa. Hmmm. After being yelled at twice by the meanest man in Vietnam, Ashley eventually asked a pilot from Emirates Airlines to exchange our dirhams after he went through the passport line, and he obliged. Unfortunately, the currency exchange didn’t accept dirhams even though they have flights arriving from the UAE multiple times daily. Fortunately for us, this guy made a trip into the Emirates office and came out with Vietnamese money. Our savior. Still, not a good start to the trip. Welcome to Vietnam.
We checked into the Saigon Europe Hotel to discover our $19/night “double twin” room was one double bed with room to walk past it- sideways. It was a cozy first night. But since we liked the hotel, the free breakfast, and its location in the backpacker area, we opted to stay there and upgraded from our 12×12 closet-without-a-closet to the “4-person” $49 room next door. All of a sudden we had that coveted closet along with two beds, two towels, a fridge, a hair dryer, and some fruit. Now we’re getting somewhere!
Unable to get money the previous night, we bee-lined to the ATM in the morning for some Vietnamese dong. Yes, that’s correct, the currency is the dong. I won’t bore you with our jokes because I’m sure you’re capable of thinking up your own. There are many.

All bills; no coins!

All bills; no coins!

One of the first things we learned is that crossing the street should be an Olympic event. In the beginning, it’s a good idea to glue yourself to people who look like they know the ropes. The motorbikes outnumber the cars tenfold (at least) but most drivers are in complete control. The largest number of people a bike seems to acceptably hold is five– two adults and three kids. What can you transport on a motorbike? ANYTHING from 300 lbs of rice to multiple bags of garbage/recycling, to fruit, fish or even a 50” flat screen tv. Whatever you can hold onto. Makes for great people-watching that never gets old.
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Mekong Delta Tour
The Mekong Delta covers an area of approximately 15,000 square miles to the west of Ho Chi Minh City. It took us just under two hours to get there by bus, passing through the city, rice fields, houses, etc.
rice field
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Not a bad drive. We began our tour with a sampling of various fruits and tea while we listened to some local musicians and singers.
Vietnam musicians

We boarded Vietnamese sampans in groups of four and were rowed down the Mekong River to a family coconut candy/ honey/ tea-making business. Here we were given the opportunity to hold a python- not scary but it was strong and had a mind of its own.
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Next, everyone boarded a larger boat and headed to another family compound for lunch. Our tour company had automatically booked us for the “upgraded” lunch that was very well-executed, especially when compared to reports by others in our group that the standard lunch was basically a of bowl rice accompanied by more fruit (yes, they separated us so the others wouldn’t be jealous, but we spilled the beans and showed photos when we re-grouped after eating).
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Post-lunch we cruised down the river for about twenty minutes, then bused back to our starting point, stopping at the Vinh Trang Buddhist temple.
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Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are series of connecting tunnels that were used as a base for the Viet Cong. We were able to glimpse what life was like for the soldiers and locals as they hid during the Vietnam War. Narrow, dark, musty, and claustrophobic, the Vietnamese used them as hospitals, kitchens, and hideouts.
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We also viewed traps, restored tanks, and land mines. An interesting bit of history but also a place where you don’t brag about being American.
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Bike Ride:
“Mr. Miyagi,” a Vietnam vet, approached us while we were having lunch at a café across the street from our hotel.
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He and his friend took Ashley and me on a two-hour bike tour of the city. We were able to see some sites that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to on foot. The sun was blazing so we felt guilty letting them pedal us around as we sipped iced coffee drinks, but we did it anyway.
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They eventually dropped us at the market so we could shop for souvenirs. It was hot, hot, hot to the point of passing out but we scored some good stuff.
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At night, we stopped at a few of the local watering holes. For the most part we’d sit right near the street so we could marvel at the traffic and subject ourselves to endless vendor harassment while downing our fifty-cent beer. If you ever need a lighter or a knock-off pair of Ray-Bans, this is the place to be. What began as mildly annoying quickly became exasperating. Instead of being rude to them, as many rightfully are, I invented a game where we had to buy something from everyone who approached us within a 15-minute time block. Ashley, ever-agreeable, obliged. After we bought a wide selection of useless items, the vendors continued to walk past and laugh when they recognized us, still trying to peddle their wares while knowing their chances of making another sale were slim; we had already bought just about everything but nail clippers. Here’s a sampling of our haul:

bracelets

bracelets

more bracelets

more bracelets

prayer beads

prayer beads

travel guide

travel guide

squid "jerky" cooked to order

squid “jerky” cooked to order

squid up close

squid up close

On our last night, what started out as our version of an “adult” evening ended up as a lesson in a REAL adult evening. We opted to have dinner at the Refinery, an upscale restaurant that reflects the heavy French influence in Vietnam. Our awesome meal of salmon and filet, along with our first and only bottle of wine in Vietnam, was well worth the 1.6 million dong (under $75).
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Afterwards, we opted to walk around the neighborhood; while it was within the district in which we stayed (District 1), it was much different than where we were housed. At one point, I commented, “Hey, look at all the traffic going down this street (more of an alley). Let’s see what’s here.” And we turned the corner and landed smack-dab in the middle of the Red Light District. It’s one thing to be aware of it but another to actually see it- I had my eyes wide open the entire time. First of all, half the businesses have some type of reference to a cat, to which I take offense.
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Second, you can see in the ground-floor windows of each place; women waiting for men, women with men, etc. I was totally expecting someone to profess, “Me love you long time.” Yikes (insert your own dong joke).
Winding our way to an area with taxis, we walked across the street from the Saigon River, which is a hot makeout spot for the younger set. Hundreds upon hundreds of motorbikes line the edge of the water at night, each holding couples that can’t keep their hands off each other. The brown water is apparently some sort of aphrodisiac.
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The rest of our time was spent relaxing, with a few inexpensive spa treatments thrown in. Our flight home was good, re-entry into the UAE was painless and we made it back to Abu Dhabi with a few hours to spare before the workday began. Although it’s good to be back in our own beds it’s disappointing to switch back to the dirham, which doesn’t buy nearly as much as its equivalent in dongs. Dirham jokes don’t roll off the tongue, either. As an official welcome back, we’re having a sandstorm today.
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But Spring Break began a few hours ago and my friend Jennifer will be flying here from Chicago on Easter Sunday, so that’s a recipe for more good stories to report next week.
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Positive Vibration

OK, OK… I received numerous comments on my most recent post- verbally, through email, texts, blog comments, Facebook comments- that I made people cry with my depressing rant. By far, the most difficult aspect of living here is missing everyone back home. However, at this moment I’m fortunate to be creating awesome memories with great people from around the world. Some I met on the plane ride over; others I’ve met along the first quarter of this journey.

Teaching in the UAE is no walk in the park. Though the majority of my friends are teachers, I’ve met a number of people who are working here in various other capacities. Admittedly, it’s nice to commiserate, laugh, share/compare/try to top other teachers’ stories, but it’s also a breath of fresh air to meet up with those who have little idea of what goes on in my life from Sunday-Thursday each week. No matter the reason for being here, all expats experience culture shock, stress, exhaustion, and frustration. Part of the problem lies in that we’ve been here for quite some time; the shine has worn off the apple and the daily grind can take its toll. We occasionally remind each other that although their “normal” is a far cry from ours, we’re guests in this country; we conduct ourselves with a modicum of respect and we realize that obstacles and red tape are not specifically aimed to complicate our lives. As remedies, we orchestrate road trips to experience life in and around the UAE, we laugh at the driving (usually), we embrace Middle Eastern cuisine, and we come to love the eerily soothing sound of the call to prayer, even at 5am.

This past weekend I actually felt like I was on vacation. Thursday night, I met Ashley in Dubai for the Ed Sheeran concert. The venue was awesome (I’m still complaining of sand-overload though, because it was blowing fiercely- sand in our eyes, sand in our mouths, sand in our beer).

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We ran into our friend Gemma; I’ve been here long enough that it’s unusual if I go out and don’t bump into someone I know, which is nice.

Yesterday, I accompanied two lovely ladies, Dani and Fatima, to the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Hotel to make use of their complimentary beach/pool access passes. Because Fatima works for Etihad Airlines, she scored us a 50% discount on food and drinks. I opted not to use sunscreen because it was slightly overcast (sort of, not really) and therefore bearable to lie in the sun and fry myself. Mission accomplished even though I know I’m too old to treat my skin that way.

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I had some good conversation with a new friend last night. We talked about home and the importance of staying connected to our families. We call our parents quite often just to let them know we’re ok. We talk and text our kids throughout the day. It’s not ideal but it works for now. There are things we do and reasons why we do them; for me and many others, being able to better support our families is the payoff; inexpensive travel is an added bonus.

As I surveyed the pool area from my balcony this morning, I noticed that every lounge chair was occupied. I’m burnt and therefore grounded from the sun until further notice, but while watching so many people enjoy their relaxation time I realized that I’m lucky to be where I am right now. I need to stay positive! A few hours later, I was driving and an Emirati guy came out of nowhere, rode my ass, flashed his lights, flew past me going 160 km/hr and cut over three lanes to make his exit. Though I’m sure he didn’t catch it, I flashed him back with a peace sign, turned up my music, and car-danced the rest of the way home. I will survive.

Dust in the Wind

It’s apropos that I’m lounging in my apartment watching Along Came Polly, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Sandy Lyle, because that’s exactly what today is- sandy. The wind is blowing full-force and there’s a sandstorm that appears to span the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, maybe more.

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This one has been wreaking havoc for hours and my weather app promises more windy days ahead.

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Here’s an aerial view of my party animal neighbors’ patio, where their beloved A&Y letters have blown over yet again.

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Most of the 5th floor canopies on the patios have been battered, too. I have small piles of sand on my balcony. So much for the months-long window-cleaning job that was just completed at The Arc, though it’s no big deal for me because my stack was skipped anyway. I actually don’t mind being holed up at home today because Ashley and I finally have a chance to sit down and plan a little getaway for the end of March. The only downside is that I have only two mornings each week to use the pool but it’s closed right now so fingers crossed this doesn’t continue into tomorrow. I need some Vitamin D to alleviate my current depression.

Some of the blues I’m experiencing stem from work. I’m grateful to have my job and won’t get into details here, but man, I gotta figure out a way to let some of this go. Right now I’m just trying to start each day fresh.

Another problem for me is homesickness. There are many people I’d love to see, but I especially miss my babies. I have four daughters- two cats and two humans.

Taking a photo with the felines is never easy

Taking a photo with the felines is never easy

Our almost 4 year-old Noelle is currently living with my friend Robin, her son Tyler, Tyler’s cat, and several dogs. Quite the menagerie. But she’s holding her own there.

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Our elderly girl, Styx, will be 16 next month.

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She doesn’t like dogs AT ALL so my parents begrudgingly took her in. Without fail, they report in-depth on her every move. To us, she was always kind of like a side item that required very little attention, as per her own request. She could be taken care of almost effortlessly. She’s now become the center of my parents’ universe. Listening to all the worries and stress Styx causes them, I’m not quite sure how they raised three children! But I’m grateful they took our beloved girl and I promised them they’ll miss her when Kate takes the cats to Grand Rapids in the fall.

Next is Jenna.

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I miss her terribly and don’t hear from her as often as I’d like. Although the 10-hour time difference is partly to blame, she’s also busy at school; she studies a lot, has joined several clubs, and is in a sorority. We text throughout the day but I usually have to catch her on the fly in order to talk on the phone. It’s weird because Jenna was a homebody until her senior year in high school. With Kate already away at college, Jenna and I spent a lot of time together. So not having her around anymore has left a gaping hole. I must admit though, given a choice, I’d rather have her happy and busy than the alternative.

And last but not least, my Kate.

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We talk and text all the time. She just returned from the Mardi Gras extravaganza in New Orleans, a 21st birthday/Christmas gift from my sister. She’s got so much going on right now including an internship in Michigan this spring/summer along with the Cannes Film Festival job in May. The fact that Kate won’t be staying in Chicago this summer led to our discussion that we may never live together again. What? I refuse to accept that.

I wish these four would just walk through the door right now. Unfortunately, the only thing coming through the front door today is food delivery, and the patio door… sand.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Many things in Abu Dhabi are more expensive than at home so you have to be ready to grab a deal whenever possible. When the girls were here over break I found a Groupon for a mani, pedi, and 1-hour massage for 140dhs ($38US). I haven’t called my kids “The Expensives” without reason; it’s not that they ask for much, but buying everything x3 can add up quickly. So I jumped on this deal and we were able to enjoy a very affordable spa afternoon. Never mind that the place was called ‘Colors Nails’ because almost everything is misspelled here (another place I frequent is called ‘Nails Arts’). Instead of letting it aggravate me I’m learning to laugh it off while enjoying the low prices.

The women of Colors Nails were nicer than nice. Many people in Abu Dhabi move here alone on a work permit and send money home to their families. The woman who did my nails told me she has a husband and young daughter in the Philippines that she supports on her meager salary. In fact, the majority of the staff was Filipino, including my massage therapist, who was a physical therapist back in her home country. She was phenomenal. My only issue is that I had a naked massage while the girls didn’t. If she thought they were too young for that, she should’ve known I was too old; out of the three of us I’m the last one you’d want to see unclothed.

(no photo out of the kindness of my heart)

I also got an awesome manicure that lasted over three weeks and still haven’t redone the pedicure I got from this place six weeks ago, though it needs help now. My students compliment me on my nails all the time. They have a slight obsession with nail polish because most of them aren’t allowed to use it. Instead, the girls often go to salons to have their hands, and sometimes feet and legs, decorated with henna. Some only get henna on special occasions like holidays and weddings, but for most girls it’s not out of the norm. Some get traditional designs, like this:

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while others go for the more modern, swirly versions:

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Henna can also be done using a little squeeze bottle and template at home (I’ll bring some back with me and have a henna party this summer) but of course the girls prefer to have it done professionally. Kate, Jenna, and I got henna while on our safari:

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We didn’t let the henna dry long enough before washing it off. A girl who was watching us get our designs said we could scrub it off under water after 15-30 minutes- that’s the absolute LAST time I listen to an 8 year-old! Our guide later informed us we should’ve left it on as long as possible so the henna would stain our skin better. I spent the next few days scrubbing my hands to remove all traces of henna so I could have it redone at the New Year’s Eve safari. Nice person that I sometimes try to be, I didn’t run over to the henna woman right away, letting other people who were more anxious go first. After dinner, I stopped by her tent to find her sleeping (locals sure do seem to doze off frequently) so I lost my chance that night.

(I took a photo of her, too, but didn’t feel right posting it)

Aside from my nails, the students are obsessed with other things about me that blow my mind. Several of them have told me they “want my eyes.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because they’re beautiful. And brown.”
“Your eyes are brown, too.”
“No, teacher, our eyes are black.”
Umm, I don’t think so, but I’m not going to argue.

Almost all of the local girls have beautiful darker skin, long, jet-black hair and dark eyes. I’m not allowed to post pictures of them, but generally speaking (you know, there are always one or two who don’t fit the mold…) they’re a good-looking bunch. They’re so used to seeing others with similar traits that they love anything out of “their ordinary,” which is understandable except when they’re referring to things about me that I can’t stand! For example, they’re obsessed with my hair. I try to tell them that it’s limp, lifeless, flyaway, boring brown hair but they won’t have it. They pet my head on the rare occasions I’m sitting down and they can reach it. On days where they’re able to touch my hair, I’m usually planted in a chair blocking the classroom door, preventing my kids from leaving or others from entering, which does not put me in the mood to have them run their fingers through my treasured locks. They also twirl my hair and try to comb it (please get your comb away from me). Hard to believe, I know, but they compliment me multiple times daily.

Another thing the girls can’t understand is why I don’t wear makeup to school. For them it’s forbidden, so they try to sneak application throughout the day. If they get caught (duh, we can all see it!) they have to remove it on the spot. My short answer to why I don’t bother with makeup is that it’s too expensive here so I don’t want to waste it for work. I actually bribed them and said if they all finished their in-class assignment today I’d wear mascara tomorrow. But of course they didn’t finish, so I don’t have to make good on that. I had a pretty good feeling I’d win when I made the bet in the first place.

The moral of the story is “everyone finds someone attractive.” Even if you have to move more than 7300 miles away from home to find those who envy you. Who cares if they’re only teenage girls. Who don’t get out much. Whatever. Here, at this moment, I have great hair.

Don't be jealous of the one on the right!

Don’t be jealous of the one on the right!

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