Breaking Free

There’s an Arabic expression used when you’re happy about something (or when someone sneezes, which I do quite often here). All you UAE teachers can belt out that magic word with me… “HAMdullah!!” It basically means “Thank God!” and I screamed it from the rooftops when we got the ok to take our students on a field trip last Thursday. After overcoming numerous obstacles that I CANNOT get in to in a blog post, we were cleared to attend a quasi trade show on its final day.

Taweya, which focused on various aspects of societal awareness, was held at ADNEC, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company. I’ve been to two other events held there, so my first thought was, “How are we gonna keep track of all the girls in such a huge venue?” I was never cleared to go on a field trip last year so feelings of inadequacy had long settled in, and though I was excited to go somewhere… anywhere… I was freaking out as well.
So right after Thursday morning announcements we took attendance, collected the permission slips, and waited for the signal to load the buses (which was done in a record 47 minutes!) My first time on a school bus, I was a bit scared. You’d be, too, if you saw the way some of them careen around here- it’s not at all like home. Our driver was fine, although he took the long way from our school to the highway. I have sympathy for anyone who knows less about the area than I do, so I let that go with maybe only one or two disparaging remarks.
There were six chaperones for four classes (and since it was a Thursday, many girls opted out of the excursion and just declared it a 3-day weekend for themselves, so classes were small). You’d think six chaperones would be adequate for sixty 10th graders but girls here are very protected, hence my job of looking after 13 students actually made me quite nervous. I must’ve counted to 13 a half dozen times before we even left the school grounds. I put one of my responsible favorites in charge of role call and told her she’d also have to round everyone up at the end of the trip (ironically, she was one of the last three to return to our meeting spot at the agreed-upon time.)
When we arrived at ADNEC we were ushered from the bus to the waiting room by security. Once allowed into the exhibit area, my bff co-worker Katie and I were thrilled to see the amount of security present, rendering our jobs all too easy. No worries of girls getting lost, leaving, hiding out in the bathroom, nothing… ahhhhh. The exhibits only spanned two of the rooms in ADNEC so we were able to walk around the area multiple times during our visit, keeping an eye on different groups of girls throughout the morning. Though the students would spot us and run over to chat every once in awhile, Katie and I had plenty of time to do what the Emirati culture does best- relax. Almost every booth offered coffee and/or tea, water, chocolate, dates, and even roses, not to mention plenty of swag. It’s a story best told in pictures, so here you go:

Greeted by a live Emirati bobblehead

Greeted by a live Emirati bobblehead

The UAE needs to start conserving water soon, inshallah

The UAE needs to start conserving water soon. Inshallah

Tea, cheese pancakes, and chocolate at one of the booths

Tea, cheese pancakes, and chocolate at one of the booths

Cool demonstration by police dogs

Cool demonstration by police dogs

CSI

CSI

Driving simulator. Though some of the girls play video games, it's obvious they don't have driver's licenses.

Driving simulator. Though some of the girls play video games, it’s obvious they don’t have driver’s licenses.

By far, the Emirates Driving School won the

By far, the Emirates Driving School won the “most popular attraction” award. The students waited in line to spin around in this car.

Meanwhile, Katie & I made sand decorations.

Meanwhile, Katie & I made sand decorations

in a shot glass

in a shot glass

Tea, dates, water. Good thing because we hadn't snacked for 3 minutes.

Tea, dates, and water. Good thing because we hadn’t snacked for at least 3 minutes.

Pantry goods storage safety: store cleaning products separately from food. Hopefully next year they'll move the cleaning products off the bottom shelf so pets and kids can't reach them. Again, inshallah.

These poor Emirati mannequins were served uncooked macaroni- yuck! The real point of the exhibit was pantry goods storage safety: store cleaning products separately from food (see back left of photo). Hopefully next year they’ll move the cleaning products off the bottom shelf so pets and kids can’t reach them. Again, inshallah.

In other words, watch out for buses or this could be you.

In other words, watch out for buses or this could be you.

US Customs Official pic

US Customs Official pic

The Emirati culture revolves around gift-giving: pens, pencils, highlighters, chocolate, flowers, coloring books, CDs, brochures, bags, etc.

The Emirati culture revolves around gift-giving: pens, pencils, highlighters, chocolate, flowers, coloring books, CDs, brochures, bags, etc.

We spread the word for the students to meet us at the entrance doors at 1pm. Yalla (hurry up!)!! Tweny minutes of yalla. The girls are capable of moving so slowly that sometimes I swear they’re walking backwards. Really, it’s kind of an art. Then there were the last minute hunger pangs and desperate need to grab Starbucks on the way out. We eventually navigated our way back to the bus, where all the students piled on top of each other in the back (see any number of previous posts regarding non-existent safety regulations while driving). Katie and I both may have dozed off despite the usual clapping, chanting, and screaming these girls do so well. But we’ll chalk up another success on our behalves. It’s a new day, people. We’re rockin’ it outta the park this year. Hamdullah!

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.

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.

Under the Weather

I’ll start with a shout-out to my friends and family in the Midwestern U.S. who are being face-whipped with some rather brutal weather. “Cold days,” which result in school cancellations, are something that didn’t exist when I was growing up but have become the new normal in recent years. My weather app has shown temps back home as low as -9F (-23C) not including the windchill, which is now factored in when making school closing decisions. Truth be told, I haven’t recovered from Chicago’s “Freezapalooza 2014” and can’t believe that was actually an entire year ago. My parents’ house is less than ten minutes from mine but several days each week after work last January I’d drive to check the pipes and water heater in their home while they were basking in the Florida sun. Leaving for work at the crack of dawn to ensure a timely arrival, sliding across sheets of ice, I’ll never forget the anxiety and exhaustion the weather created. I feel for all of you, really. But don’t hate us here in Abu Dhabi even though we’re enjoying 75-80 degree weather every day. Because we have something else on our plate.

Fog.

It sounds harmless enough… until you’ve driven in it. The fog began to set in weeks ago, before Christmas break. One morning, when I woke to a string of group texts from my co-workers like “Looks foggy” and “Fog day?” I soon discovered that fog days are akin to “late starts” in Chicago, where school’s still in session but the start time is delayed. Back home these extra hours enable plows to work their magic and buses to run their routes at a more cautious pace. In the UAE the fog generally lifts when the sun rises, or at least it did last month. Our Asst Principal can call a fog day for the school, but because we all live in different areas of the city we can use our own judgment to decide when it’s safe to get on the road (there’s a leniency here that we just don’t have at home.)

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Luckily, I didn’t encounter any bad driving experiences before Christmas break. Who knew it was going to get worse?

Let’s backtrack for a sec. I’ve complained about UAE driving in general. As reinforcement, I’m posting some pics of a few teachers’ cars that have been smacked in the past few months:

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(Photo: Chris)

(Photo: Chris)

Throw in a little fog and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. My friend Bettina (you can check out her escapades at https://bettinawithoutborders.wordpress.com) was driving from Abu Dhabi Airport to Al Ain last week and found herself stuck in the aftermath of a 19-car, fog-induced pileup. No human deaths resulted but there were a few camels injured along with a mama camel who died 😦 Reading the news report, I tried to picture what an absolute mess that whole scene must have been. You know what it’s like when you see one or two crumpled cars on the side of the highway and your heart sinks? And this was nineteen vehicles. Leaves you shaken for quite awhile.

Fast-forward to yesterday; it gets worse.

Morning view from my balcony to 5th flr pool

Morning view from my balcony to 5th flr pool

Another balcony view (Photo: Michelle)

Another balcony view (Photo: Michelle)

And another (Photo: Paulette)

And another (Photo: Paulette)

Treacherous morning drive (Photo: Carl & Maeve)

Treacherous morning drive (Photo: Carl & Maeve)

Come to find out there was a 100+ car pileup in Abu Dhabi yesterday. Never heard of such a thing but it appears this has happened before. I can only begin to wrap my brain around this because of the driving I witnessed myself. From no lights to hazard lights, speeding to crawling, there was no continuity on the roads. The fog grew exponentially worse as my commute progressed; I met two co-workers at the gas station and we took an extended coffee break before completing the last ten minutes of our drive. Which Was Horrible. My school is immediately off the highway exit but when I made the turn yesterday I couldn’t even see it. Throw in some construction and it was a white-knuckle experience. One of our veteran teachers drove around the construction, parked her car, and walked in before realizing she had mistakenly entered the primary school two blocks away (in her defense, the schools are all similarly built!) THAT’s how heavy the fog was.

I used to think fog days were awesome, but after driving this week my bubble has been burst. So be careful out there- whether you’re being pummeled by snow, wind, rain or sand, or blanketed by fog, or sliding on ice. And remember, we’ll eventually look back on this and laugh. Someday. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

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