Three Little Birds

I was introduced to UAE falcons last September. Shortly after arriving in Abu Dhabi I attended the International Hunting and Equestrian Expo, where a falconer first offered to let me hold one of these prized birds of prey. Initially, I was nervous- all handlers need to wear an arm cuff as protection from the talons, so that alone is cause for hesitation.

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After holding one, however, my fears waned (at least more than they have with squirrels.) So while writing a list of “must-do” activities for the girls’ Christmas visit, I added the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital to the list. In the UAE almost everything has “world’s fastest,” “world’s tallest,” or “world’s largest” attached to the name. So it shouldn’t shock you that Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the world’s largest of its kind.

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Since opening in 1999, ADFH has treated tens of thousands of falcons as well as other types of birds. Recently, it has expanded to include a dog and cat clinic along with a shelter for strays (crazy cat lady post pending). After arriving at the hospital and getting the runaround at the entrance gate, we were allowed to enter and wait for the 2pm tour. The tour began semi-on-time, which is pretty good for the UAE. We were first crammed into a tiny “history museum” that showcased falconry items, maps, and things. I can blow through a museum faster than anyone but this was a single room so there was nowhere to run. The guide finally entered and they closed all of us into the standing-room only museum for what seemed like an eternity (it was so long that there was a typical UAE break, where servers provided glasses of juice) to learn everything we ever wanted to know about falcons. Here’s what I soaked in:

Falcons have played an integral part of Arabian lifestyle and tradition for thousands of years; some bedouins still use them for hunting today.

The falcon is the national bird of the United Arab Emirates as well as a status symbol among the Emirati people.

The three most common types used in falconry are the peregrine, saker, and cyr.

The peregrine falcon is the smallest and most expensive and can sell for many tens of thousands of UAE dirhams (as much as $40,000US).

-Female falcons are larger than males and therefore more highly regarded.

-Falcons are issued passports to reduce illegal trading and can no longer be taken abroad unless their owner procures one.

Finally, the door opened and we were shuttled to the outpatient section of the hospital, where a few dozen falcons were lined up and tethered to perches, waiting for their check-ups.

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Most falcons wear hoods on their heads to keep calm.

Keep Calm and Wear a Falcon Hood

Keep Calm and Wear a Falcon Hood

Using a gas mask, the vet anesthetized one of the falcons before weighing it, taking a blood sample, checking its ears, and clipping its talons and beak.

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We were then able to hold and photograph the falcons. It takes a second to get comfortable and then they become quite endearing:

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Though that wasn’t the official end of the tour, it was for the three of us. Kate’s and my undiagnosed ADD kicked in and we felt like we had learned all we needed to know so we asked where the restroom was and made a mad dash for the exit. I guess we missed an aviary show but at the time it seemed much more important to head over to the luxurious Emirates Palace hotel to view the “World’s Most Expensive Christmas Tree” (supposedly $11 million USD).

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A few days later we joined a safari that included a demonstration from a falconer in the middle of the desert. He brought a peregrine male with him and demonstrated training and hunting techniques while the falcon swooped back and forth overhead. Again, we were afforded another photo opp:

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After the girls returned to the US, I happened upon this Instagram photo of Selena Gomez (no, I don’t follow her).

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Oddly enough, my pal Selena and I stayed at the same hotel in Paris in the spring of 2009; she was there to unveil some new clothing line while I was there to scarf down bread and cheese, drink wine, and visit Jim Morrison’s grave. Turns out she was in the UAE over Christmas break too, and held a falcon while on safari. Though annoyed that she couldn’t even throw a text my way, I’m flattered that she finds it necessary to follow me around the world. Living like a celebrity, yes I am. At least until my pre-dawn alarm sounds and I head back to this crazy thing called my job.

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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.

I’m Saaaaiiiiiling!

No, I’m not- I just had the urge to throw out one of my favorite What About Bob? quotes. Sailing ranks among my least favorite activities on the planet. I grew up heaving over the side of my dad’s sailboat on Lake Michigan because he rarely let me stay home. I can handle a speedboat for quite awhile and have always loved waterskiing, but that’s where I draw the line. I do have an affinity for boats though, and usually head to the Chicago Boat Show and Tall Ships at Navy Pier when those events come to town. When I heard that Abu Dhabi was a port for the Volvo Ocean Boat Race I made a note to check it out. It’s so easy to attend events here- free parking, free admission, and the crowds don’t compare to the chaos at home.
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The boats arrived the 2nd week of December. Unaware at the time, Ashley, Kate, Jenna and I went to the race village on Christmas Eve and, not seeing any boats, assumed they just hadn’t sailed in yet (they were really docked elsewhere). So we walked the area, taking pics and especially enjoying the girls’ first camel interaction with two unattended beach bums.
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There are billboards with info about and quotes from the crew members:
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Jenna posed with this one for Grandma

Jenna posed with this one for Grandma

I returned to the scene yesterday because I read that there’d be an in-port race. Abu Dhabi is the third of eleven ports throughout the 38,739 nautical mile journey (the sailors had just come from Cape Town and as of this afternoon are now on their way to Sanya, China.) The in-port race was scheduled to take place at 2pm yesterday. Due to the fact that it was a beautiful afternoon that lacked the necessary wind, the race was delayed by almost two hours. I occupied myself by watching others practice archery,
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build with Legos,
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and try their hand at the HSBC Golf Championship Chipping Challenge- all golf balls are dissolvable and filled with fish food, which is a good thing because thousands went into the Gulf.
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There was also music and dancing:
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and race footage from the first two legs played on the big screen.
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This is one VERY heavy trophy- I had to use my leg to hold it up:
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The UAE Aerobatic Team was spectacular:
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A commentator informed us of a few things that confirmed I’ll never join a crew in my lifetime, such as all the onboard food is freeze-dried and each crew member is only allowed to bring one change of clothing. Yuck and yuck.

Finally the race got underway. The only all-female crew, Team SCA, is currently in 1st place of the six teams and ran away with the port race as well. I guess the port races aren’t really too “important” in the great scheme of things unless there’s a tie and they need to look at other determining factors. At the conclusion of the race the boats docked, crews disembarked and interviews took place.
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The announcer reported that three of the women on the SCA team are mothers. The best moment of the afternoon came when crew member Abby Ehlers’ three-year old son walked onto the boat. When she picked him up, I could read the back of his t-shirt: My Mum Rocks. So now I’ll have to keep track of this race and root for the chicks. If you can’t join ’em, cheer ‘em on!

Surfin’ Safari

Sandboards

Sandboards


Desert safaris are a favorite way to get a whopping dose of local culture in one fell swoop. No matter which company you book with, they generally follow the same format. I splurged on two safaris this week, one with the girls and the other for New Year’s Eve with friends.

Safari #1
Safaris begin with dune bashing, where you basically put your life in a driver’s hands while he flies you up, down, and around sand dunes all the way to the camp.

Most of you know this isn’t really my thing. Luckily, I found a safari company that offered a 45-minute camel ride to the campsite in lieu of dune bashing (Platinum Heritage/Dubai). The ride was super-fun, though at one point I yelled to the girls, “Raise your hand if you’re out of your comfort zone! I’d raise MY hand, but I’m too far out of my comfort zone to let go!” I think they secretly like when I act like a freak.
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Our guide led us to a small carpet and pillow-covered site where we were given sparkling date/apple juice to sip while we watched and photographed the sunset.
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Next, a falconer brought out a peregrine male and demonstrated some training and hunting techniques. The falcon is the national bird of the UAE as well as a status symbol among Emiratis.
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Then we hopped in our guide Batir’s 4×4 and drove two minutes to the campsite. Coffee and dates were offered as is customary in any social setting. I’m really getting sick of the dates but I’ve come to enjoy the coffee and tea more than I initially did. We learned that it is a compliment to be served a half-cup of coffee because it means your host will refill your drink when finished; being served a full cup is your cue to drink up and call it a night. Luckily, we were all served half-cups or it would’ve been a really short safari.
Dinner began with lentil soup, followed by the usual pita, hummus, kibbeh, tabbouleh, fattoush (salad) and more. Though we were full at that point, the main course followed. I had chicken and lamb with a side of rice; camel curry was offered but after our new friends gave us a nice ride through the desert earlier I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
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There were several forms of entertainment, including dancing and music. A henna artist was on hand as well.
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Shisha was offered near the end of the evening. Later, as we stretched out on pillows and gazed at the million stars in the sky, Jenna said, “I feel like I’m in a snow globe,” a very accurate description of the scene. Unfortunately, our iPhones are incapable of capturing a starry night.
The safari ended somewhere between 9 and 10pm; by that time the temperature had dropped considerably. Note to self: buy sweatshirt, winter hat, and mittens for the next safari.

Safari #2
Several of us who stayed in the UAE over Christmas break opted to book a safari for New Year’s Eve. This time though, we chose to stay overnight. Our guide Farid picked us up at our front door yesterday at 3pm and took us straight to the site. I thought I’d be stuck dune bashing, but since I was sitting in the front seat I got to talking with Farid about how I was afraid I’d get sick in his really expensive Hummer. He offered to drop everyone at the starting point, drive me to the campsite, and then retrieve everyone for the dune bashing. I jumped all over that offer and I think I made the right choice because the “smooth” drive to the campsite was about all I could handle. While a handful of others eventually showed up because they had also shied away from the dune bashing, I was the first one at the camp so I got to take “before” pictures of the place when it was unoccupied. My phone battery drains at warp speed in the desert so I don’t have any “after” photos but the place was desecrated.
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I also seized the opportunity to take a few more camel selfies.
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After my group arrived, everyone poured a drink and headed up the sand dunes to watch the sun set.

Dani, Andy, and Andy's parents Helen and Derek

Dani, Andy, and Andy’s parents Helen and Derek


Andy and Dani

Andy and Dani


We then sat around our table, chatted, took photos, the usual.
Me, Bettina, Joe, and Lisa

Me, Bettina, Joe and Lisa


Derek (looking snazzy in the traditional dress) and Helen

Derek (looking snazzy in the traditional dress) and Helen


Gotta love a girl who brings a wine purse into the desert

Gotta love a girl who brings a wine purse into the desert


All kinds of entertainment was provided: belly dancer, male dancing, magician, henna.
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We again enjoyed shisha.
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The midnight celebration included silly string, massive amounts of confetti, and dangerously close fireworks. Most people went home after that but a handful were in it for the long haul. We stayed up til almost 4am before retiring to our tent. The temps weren’t too bad and the sleeping bag was so warm I didn’t even need my new winter hat.
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We awoke around 9am and were served breakfast before Farid drove us home. The rest of the day was spent hanging out in my apartment reading, doing laundry, uploading and sorting photos. It’s good to have a chill day every once in awhile. Gives me time to think of what I want to plan next.

Ayubowan

Sri Lanka is a difficult place to get around, and the driving conditions are terrible. Drivers always have one hand on the horn and honk it constantly to alert dogs, cyclists, cows, elephants, and goats as well as other vehicles.

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I couldn’t imagine driving around this place; I know I said that about Abu Dhabi a few months ago, but I’m serious this time. Not only do they drive on the left but most of the roads are only two lanes (in its better areas it was reminiscent of driving down the Keys in the 80’s, but most of the time not really), although there are two new four-lane highways that connect a few of the cities (for the most part) with a third highway in the works. Many of the roads we took were very narrow and busy. Animals, people, houses, and open-front stores line either side of the road- right there- no sidewalk or curb.
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Luckily, a car and driver were included in our vacation package. Our driver, Chami, was very skilled and though I gasped and/or closed my eyes multiple times during our road trip (I was sure the car was gonna die while driving through some deep water at one point), he navigated the streets very skillfully. Even though the driving is insane, those behind the wheel share a common etiquette and navigate fairly seamlessly along the winding roads. We rode in a regular car, but many look like this:
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The tuk-tuk is mainly used as a taxi. It’s kind of like a covered motorcycle with a larger seat attached to the back, big enough for two people to ride in (or in Sri Lanka, several people, or people and dogs, or a carful of vegetables, or whatever needs to be transported) plus the driver up front. The side flaps can be lowered in the rain. Sri Lanka gets its fair share of rain and has the greenery to prove it.
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Chami was a cool guy and super-informative.
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He spoke very good English as many Sri Lankans do. Their official languages are Sinhala and Tamil (signs are in all three languages). The first word he taught us was “Ayubowan,” a hello/good-bye greeting that’s exchanged to wish people a long life. He said when someone directs the greeting toward you it’s insulting not to reply in the same manner. My language learning ended there but I at least used this word numerous times.
Chami suggested extra stops that weren’t on the original itinerary. Yes, he took us for a ride in more ways than one as we discovered he knew the people at each stop personally, so I’m sure he and the shop owners have a really good gig going with that setup. Still, as first-timers to Sri Lanka there were so many things to check out and he made sure we saw as much as possible during our short visit.
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We visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sigiriya, which is an enormous rock where King Kasyapa built his palace.
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There are frescoes inside:
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along with a gateway that was built in the shape of a huge lion.
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Word to the wise: if you let a man help you up any of the stairs at the beginning of the hike, he’ll follow you for the next 1200. Then you’ll tip him at the end and he’ll ask for even more rupees.
TEMPLE OF THE TOOTH
Another UNESCO Heritage Site, the Temple of the Tooth is a Buddhist temple that houses one of the Buddha’s teeth.
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People bring all kinds of offerings, mostly flowers:
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While we waited in line for forty minutes to walk past the tooth, we were able to listen to some interesting drumming that was taking place in the hall below. Unfortunately, I can’t share the video until I upload it to youtube. Trust me, I heard enough of it for all of us.
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TEA-MAKING
This shop and its equipment looked to be about 1,000 years old and only in place for demonstration purposes. None of the equipment was on unless the tour guide turned it on and no other tourists were in the shop. The guide showed us how tea leaves are processed and poured us a cup of tea at the end of the tour, so all was well.
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HERBAL/SPICE GARDEN
There were actually other people here. The guide showed us a number of trees and plants, served us tea and some concoction that tasted like cough syrup (it did not, however, eliminate the persistent cough I’ve had for three weeks) and offered a “free” back and foot massage at the end of the tour. Very earthy. Their lunch buffet (including a bottle of water) was $3/person, so that was a big score.
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PINNAWALA ELEPHANT ORPHANAGE
There were dozens of elephants, with most roaming free except for the few that were ill-behaved. They’re supposedly released back into the wild when it’s appropriate, but some stay in the orphanage forever due to injury or illness. The elephants walk back and forth between the holding pens, feeding area, and river several times each day. They lumber right down the middle of the road, past the shops and restaurants. For a very small fee, you can feed, bathe, or take photographs with them.
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MANGROVE SAFARI
Armed with half a Dramamine and my indispensible Psi-Bands (for motion sickness) I clumsily boarded a small boat that motored for 90-minutes through the mangroves. Fell in love with a monkey, held a baby crocodile, watched a cinnamon stick-making demonstration, and photographed a group of people who enjoyed having a pool of fish eat the dead skin off their feet. Again, I found myself slightly out of my comfort zone- aside from holding the monkey, which was second-nature. I wished I could’ve carried him around all day or adopted him altogether.
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BEACH
The beach was nice; we had been forewarned about the “beach boys” who follow everyone around in a lame attempt to get someone to commit to a massage or buy things from the shops that dot the shore. Although I tried to coax one of the dogs to walk with me on the beach, he wouldn’t. The beach boy, however, followed me relentlessly. As in other countries, these guys aren’t allowed to enter the resort, which is a good thing because they just don’t let up.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

HOTEL
The pool bar was entertaining, or rather, I was entertaining at the pool bar. I met a number of people and chatted up the bartender well past closing time. Must’ve been the Sri Lankan beer, which was cheap and almost double the size of a regular bottle. And I didn’t only have one.
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There’s more, but I promised myself I’d only hit the highlights. All in all, five days in Sri Lanka was a nice way to spend our National Day holiday. Planes were on time, people were friendly and accommodating, and everything was much less expensive than it is in the UAE. This city girl enjoyed a glimpse into a world that’s dominated by dogs, cows, goats, monkeys, bats, and more. The abundance of local fruit was a refreshing change of pace as well.
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It was back to the grind on Sunday, but ten days from today we have two weeks off for winter break. I’ll spend it here, showing Kate and Jenna around Abu Dhabi and Dubai… stay tuned as the adventure continues!

Somebody’s Having a Birthday!

Situated along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf- known as the Arabian Gulf here- the area formerly known as the Trucial States was basically a vast desert that was comprised of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qaiwain, Ras al Khaimah, Fujaira, Bahrain, and Qatar, each ruled by a different Sheikh. After the rise and fall of the pearling industry, oil was discovered in the 1950’s and 60’s and the money making began. Soon after, in December 1971, the leaders decided to unite, forming one nation. While Bahrain and Qatar declined, six of the states united, with Ras Al Khaimah joining the following year. With Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (believe me, after only four months here that name rolls off my tongue) as the first President of the United Arab Emirates, the new country quickly flourished and has since become one of the most progressive areas in the world. Tourism has skyrocketed despite the generally suspect reputation of the Middle East. The economy is flourishing and construction is at an all-time high- just tool around town with me if you want to see for yourself. Dubai is the most recognizable city to Westerners and boasts the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building to date. Dubai Mall houses an aquarium while Mall of the Emirates sports an indoor ski hill. Abu Dhabi is home to the Grand Mosque, Yas Marina Circuit with its Formula 1 track, and the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World. Though “bigger, better, faster” is the name of the game in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, each of the seven emirates has its own distinct feel. Some are largely comprised of camels and sand, as many people picture this entire nation. But no matter the composition, each area celebrates National Day like you wouldn’t believe. Although the official date is December 2nd, party preparations began on November 3rd (Flag Day) with the festivities snowballing from there.
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Commonly referred to as “Our Father,” Sheikh Zayed, who passed away ten years ago, was and still is revered by the people of the UAE. I kept mentally equating him with George Washington but it just didn’t work. Who drives around with a George Washington sticker on their car? That’s right… nobody. The Emirati people have a deep love, respect, and admiration for what Sheikh Zayed did to turn the UAE into the prosperous country it is today. While his image is permanently plastered on billboards and buildings, at this time of year his face is also on pins, scarves, hats, candy, coffee mugs, car decals, etc. People dress in the UAE flag colors of black, red, white, and green; some paint their faces like this:

Many locals decorate their cars or even drape a flag over the front.
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There are elaborate parades and “pride” contests with sizable monetary awards (big surprise). Buildings are covered in colored lights and decorations line the highways.
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Fireworks displays abound, and they’re beyond extravagant. Picture a never-ending 4th of July celebration. Everyone goes crazy. Although our official school break is Dec 2-6, the students have already stopped showing up, not that I’m complaining! A funny thing here is when the families think it’s important to be home celebrating together, they ignore the school calendar and decide individually how much time off is appropriate.
We already celebrated National Day at school last week.

Our school lobby


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The English department hosted a spelling bee, created an art display, and manned a table where the girls could create yarn bracelets in the national colors. Other departments chose their own ways to promote national pride. Some of my friends’ schools had authentic Arabian meals, henna, camel and falcon visits and lots of other coolness. Although our celebration was tame, this was still exciting for the girls who attended because we normally don’t have a lot of extra activities going on. A talent show was scheduled for last Thursday (US Thanksgiving Day) but we only had several dozen students out of 1000 present, so it was postponed until next trimester. Here are some cute sentiments expressed by a few of the students:



To reward myself for working on Thanksgiving Day last week, I’m gonna hightail it out of here and take a short trip to Sri Lanka over break. My bags are packed and I’ll be on my way to the airport in a few hours. So I’ve posted photos to give you a taste of what the National Day holiday is like, knowing this post doesn’t convey even a fraction of the insanity that will be on display tomorrow. Happy 43rd birthday, United Arab Emirates- let’s enjoy our fabulous 40’s together!!

Sanded

Frankly, the Abu Dhabi teaching life can, on occasion, knock you out and drag you down. All expat teachers here arrive optimistic and ready to positively impact the education system. Ahemmm. OK. Let’s re-think that. Because as much as we want to give 110% every day, resources, time constraints, and various other obstacles prevent many from accomplishing their goals. So we work with what we have. Which, depending on the grade you teach and the school that employs you, can be attainable or just a shisha pipe dream. We all have good days and bad but, thankfully, the weekends here tend to make up for the headaches (along with the knowledge that I’m paying off my huge grad school bill.)

Many teachers hang out together, whether meeting up for pool time, happy hours, birthday celebrations, or meals eaten in good company. Everyone finds his or her niche. Sometimes you just need to break away and chill and I’m thankful to have people to explore cool places with.

Helllllllloooooo, beaches! For as much as I hate the gritty feel of sand, crunching shells under my feet, seaweed, and disgusting, aggressive little biting fish that swim in the shallow section of the ocean, I’m no stranger to beaches. Those of you who don’t hail from Chicago may not realize that our unbeatable city is situated on Lake Michigan, which totally puts us on the map of “best summer hangouts on Earth.” We’ll ignore the downside of winter for now since it’s not always easy to justify the daily scraping of car windshields, commuting over varying degrees of snow, ice, and potholes for five freezing months out of the year just to experience the few summer months of joy our awesome city has to offer. Some folks actually enjoy winter, but clearly I’m not that gal. But those glorious summer months make us forget time and again that we’re held captive to the wind, snow, and ice more than most of us would like to admit. My parents have also spent a good amount of time living in Florida over the past 30 years, so if I didn’t know beaches as a kid I’m certainly an expert after visiting the various homes they’ve occupied over the years. Also, my daughter Kate attends college in Grand Rapids, MI, so nobody needs to sell me on the benefits of driving up the west coast of The Mitten on a blistery 85 degree summer Saturday.

Not a fan of sand, I can’t believe how much I enjoyed my first excursion to Saadiyat Beach. Kate also abhors sand, but I’m telling you, this place is on my to-do list for her visit next month. As much as I don’t LOVE the sun- I don’t tan well, it’s tedious reading a book wearing sunglasses instead of readers- I enjoy a good cabana. And that’s close to what we got. For about a $20USD entrance fee to Saadiyat Beach (free if you don’t want any frills but I’m too old to scrimp) you get a lounge chair, umbrella, and the good graces of the Arabian sun. The guide checks your ticket and walks you to a designated spot where he sets up a table and chair under a large, in-ground umbrella; the space is yours for the day. Food and drinks are sold on-site but you can bring your own cooler. Heck, this is the UAE- people brought coffee and tea sets and served themselves right there on the beach. Chris and I spent the afternoon reading, listening to tunes, and wading in the Gulf. Bonus points for Saadiyat for being seaweed-free, crystal blue, and bathwater temps. What a recharge.
Saadiyat Beach
However, beaches aren’t only for daytime lounging. Last night, I went with some friends to a beach BBQ. They’ve been venturing out on Tuesday nights for several weeks now and invited me to join. And that’s how Andy finally made the blog. When I first began chronicling my adventures I wasn’t comfortable specifically naming people in case they didn’t want to be called out for their antics. Well, all that’s over now because I can’t tell the stories properly without setting the scene. Andy, our resident Scot, and his wife Danielle are awesome- they married shortly before arriving in Abu Dhabi and have been living a type of extended honeymoon (aside from work) ever since. They’re out and about all the time, planning activities, buying tickets to events, orchestrating road trips. Andy’s never at a loss for words as he’s a natural-born storyteller. Dani’s one of my favorite people here- she’s sweet as can be, has had me over for dinner (I’m semi-retired from cooking at this point) and will go anywhere, anytime- my kind of girl.

So right after work yesterday we headed out to the beach- me, Andy, Dani, and Dani’s dad Colin, who’s visiting this week. They prepared all the food for everyone while the people we met there brought the firewood, grills, etc. So basically I just tagged along- in general I’m up for doing my part but this time I got a free ride. We arrived at the beach and started off-roading to their standard meeting place. And then all of a sudden we were “sanded.” Stuck. Spinning our wheels, going nowhere fast. This is exactly why we weren’t allowed to park in the sand lot at the golf outing in Dubai last weekend- the attendant found us a special spot because he said our car couldn’t handle the sand. Now I believe him.

For blog purposes only, I wish I could say chaos ensued but fortunately for us an Emirati guy showed up two or three minutes after we stranded ourselves. Andy was digging out the tires and we were just about to shove the car mats underneath them for traction. The Emirati had a 4×4, which is typically what’s driven in the sand, so he tied a rope to the car and freed it within seconds. We proceeded to our site via a safer route and then enjoyed good food and conversation for several hours. Even a non sand-loving girl could get used to this.




Sugar Rush

Type 2 Diabetes commonly surfaces in adulthood, and though there are multiple risk factors it can be brought about by an unhealthy diet and inactive lifestyle. Knowing what I do about my teenage students’ eating habits, it’s no surprise that as a country the UAE ranks 15th worldwide in reported diabetes, with 19% of the population living with this disease.
The backstory: Our high school “canteen” serves snacks twice a day. The students don’t have a formal lunch period; there’s a 20-minute break in the morning and a 15-minute break in the afternoon. Since it’s customary to eat dinner around 9 or 10pm, most of the girls hold off on lunch until they get home from school at 4pm. But because they wake at 5am for their first of five daily prayers, even if they have breakfast they’re hungry at school and snack all day. Unfortunately, nobody brings healthy food from home. There are ZERO fruits or vegetables to be found when the bell rings for breaks; instead, they all bolt to the canteen to buy their all-important sugar and caffeine-laden snacks.
I have to say the girls are more than willing to share the food they consume at school. The Islamic culture expresses love through food and drink; my students will offer me their half-empty water bottle or a piece of chocolate that’s melting in their hand. This is done out of genuine care and it’s nice to see this side of them. Today, one of my students walked up to me and shook my hand (as I say from time to time, there will be an entire blog post dedicated to something I’m only briefly mentioning today… hand shaking in the UAE is on the list.) I said, “Your hand’s freezing! Did you just eat ice cream?” And she responded, “Yes, do you want me to buy you some?” Despite their kindness and generosity, their offerings aren’t at all appealing. Here’s a short list of snacks I see most frequently scarfed down:
Chocolate milk
Mountain Dew
Kit Kats
Popcorn
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Ice cream novelties: cones, popsicles, freeze pops
Energy Drinks
BBQ potato chips stuffed inside a cheap, white-flour hot dog bun (sans dog, not that a hot dog would up the nutritional value).
Teachahhh… why don’t you try this?? It’s delicious!”
Teachahhh, have one! Everyone eats this! It’s our favorite snack!” (yeah, talking about the chip bun.)
To compound the food issues, the older girls don’t have PE class or play on any sports teams. See where I’m going with this? Unhealthy diet + inactive lifestyle= Type 2 Diabetes.
This past weekend I joined 18,000 people for Walk 2014, which was held to promote awareness of badly needed lifestyle changes. I have to admit that I agreed to do the walk partly because it was held at Yas Marina Circuit and the 5K took place on the Formula 1 track where the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held (and is going down in two weeks!). The walk began at 5pm so the weather was beautiful, and it was yet another awesome people-watching opportunity. I’m often torn between trying to take photos without capturing unwilling subjects, requesting permission to take photos (especially of Muslim women, which is protocol here) or not taking photos at all. Here are the results:

Entrance to bldg at Yas Marina Circuit

Entrance to bldg at Yas Marina Circuit

Pre-race with Chris

Pre-race with Chris

Fancy chair decorations in the coffee shop. I smell a Pinterest pin!

Fancy chair decorations in the coffee shop. I smell a Pinterest pin!

Happily surprised to see a veg stand at the walk

Happily surprised to see a veg stand at the walk

There's just something refreshing about women who pair abayas with baseball caps

There’s just something refreshing about women who pair abayas with baseball caps

Relaxation is a priority in this country!

Relaxation is a priority in this country!

At the starting gate

At the starting gate

Yas Viceroy, a luxury hotel that straddles the track

Yas Viceroy, a luxury hotel that straddles the track

On our way...

On our way…

Almost finished

Almost finished


Oddly enough, I consumed more sweets this weekend than I normally crave. There’s a coffee shop at the track, so I belligerently walked the first km with a chocolate Frozzychino in hand. I felt a little guilty about that, but when it’s 90 degrees and you happen upon a place that serves frozen drinks, things can spiral out of control. To add insult to injury, I went out last night and picked up a container of banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery. I haven’t eaten this much sugar in a long time. I hope my students aren’t rubbing off on me. If you ever see me biting into a hot dog bun filled with chips, feel free to slap it out of my hand.

Adventures in “Plain Al Ain”

Al Ain is an area in the emirate of Abu Dhabi that’s a 90-minute drive from the actual city of Abu Dhabi. My friend Ashley was placed there to work at a middle school near the Oman border. I met her on our first night here; we were both assigned to the 10th floor of the Hotel Intercontinental and spent at least part of every day together until I was given the keys to my apartment. Several weeks later, after settling into our respective new homes, we agreed that a reunion was in order. I decided to go to Al Ain since Ashley had already seen the city and I wanted to get a feel for her new living situation.
Before either of us knew anything about her new home (other than its name) we were talking about our blogs and how she should rename hers to tie in with her current adventure. A few days prior, we had been told that people from Dubai like to call Abu Dhabi “Abu Shabi” because the two cities are always arguing about which one is better and the residents like to get a jab in whenever they can. We finally settled on “Plain Al Ain” because, frankly, it was the best nickname I came up with and it has a nice ring to it. If you can do better, by all means let me know.

Thank God for iTunes

Thank God for iTunes

After my extremely plain drive through the desert to Al Ain- the bonus factor being that it’s just under an hour away from my school- we went shopping to buy her some home furnishings. The following day we flirted with heat stroke at the Al Ain Zoo and laughed about the fact that we didn’t die (we were so hot we barely conversed the whole time). In general, she lives in a pretty regular town. It’s what people here think of as “suburban,” but it’s not like Chicago suburbs at all. It’s very spread out with sand hills all around; shopping is easier than it is in the city but it’s not as bustling by any means. Gas stations are also much more plentiful though, so it does have its good points.
At any rate, Al Ain is the proud home of a mountain called Jebel Hafeet. It’s over 1200m (4000 ft) high, which I didn’t realize until it was too late. Anyone who knows me knows that I have motion sickness issues; I’m usually able to work around them if I’m aware in advance that I’ll be on a boat, or circling endlessly on never-ending winding roads, or riding three roller coasters within an hour, or jumping out of a plane. However, we hadn’t discussed this field trip ahead of time so when I saw the mountain and the ominous road swirling to the top, I was reminded of the out-of-body experience I had while driving to Muir Woods in California and was like “Nooooo, I’m not sure I can handle this.” I’m so jaded that I actually keep Dramamine in my purse, but knew we’d reach our destination before the little miracle pill even kicked in. Since we were in Ashley’s rental car, I opted to let her to continue to drive just to absolve myself of any responsibility should we careen off the road; I begged her to drive slowly and to stop at the photo opp areas so I could physically and mentally re-group. I’m sure she thought I was nuts, as anyone who hasn’t experienced my motion-sickness-in-action would, but we eventually made it to the summit without incident.

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Once there, I was glad I’d held it together. At the top of the mountain sits Mercure, a beautiful oasis resort.
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We walked through the hotel to an outdoor restaurant called Eden Rock, which overlooks the pool on one side and the mountainside on the other. The waiter told us they only offered a prix fixe lunch menu so, having no choice, we went with that. Later, we noticed other diners eating hamburgers and club sandwiches, but we were in it for the experience so we didn’t complain, at least not until we asked to take our leftovers home and the waiter said “we don’t have containers for takeaway.” Of course you don’t; this is the UAE, where nothing makes sense and things are… just the way they are. Unfortunately, the food was so good we would’ve wrapped it in a napkin (aka a tissue here.. really- right out of the cardboard box) or carried it in our bare hands if that was feasible. Instead, we left a feast for the flies that swarmed our table.
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And these were just the apps!

And these were just the apps!

Since it was almost 5pm by the time we finished lunch, we made only one quick stop at the less-than-stellar gift shop before returning to the car. As soon as we began driving I realized that though there are two lanes on the way up the mountain, there’s only one on the way down. I forced Ashley to drive so slowly on the descent that she had to pull over to allow several aggravated drivers to pass us. My extreme concern for our health and safety didn’t stop her from carrying on a non-bluetooth cell phone conversation as we wound down the mountain. But because of her gabbing she completely missed out on seeing an extremely large, oddly-shaped mountain/sand formation that I cannot describe on my G-rated blog so that was her loss. Ashley says I should have interrupted her but I didn’t think she needed any more distractions. In reality, I thought we’d wind past it several times but our path didn’t take us around in a circle the way I’d anticipated. We eventually made it back to her apartment and had some laughs about the takeaway fail and how we didn’t melt into a puddle at the zoo. All in all, a good day and a fun weekend. As usual, we had a great time, made some new friends, and mixed in a little culture with our antics. Although we’ll probably use the nickname the entire time we’re here, Al Ain will never be plain as long as she’s living there.
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What Not to Wear

Ahhh, the question that’s been on everyone’s mind. I can only speak from personal experience because the dress code is different for everyone.

Times I was inappropriately dressed:

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque- please refer to my previous mosque post for details. When you’re required to dress a certain way and don’t, sheer embarrassment is the end result. It’s quite an eye-opener to be called out on account of clothing, especially as an adult. I had to use one of the mosque’s hooded abayas, which in turn resulted in inappropriate, convulsive laughter.

Al Sharq Mall in Baniyas, AD. I was out in the sticks and quickly learned that people generally dress more conservatively the farther out they are from actual Abu Dhabi city. Lost and hungry, we stopped at a mall only to find that nearly everyone was wearing the traditional dress, whereas when you go to a mall in the city there’s a larger variety of people, resulting in a wider array of fashion choices. At Al Sharq, I was the only person in a sleeveless shirt, but rather than shop for a sweater or scarf I hung my head in shame while we found a place to eat before bolting back to the car.

What I didn’t pack enough of:

Jackets- Because I knew I’d need to cover my arms at work, I bought five identical black cardigans before I left home so I’d have one to wear every day of the work week. All eight of the skirts I brought match them so I figured it would be an easy way to coordinate my outfits. But since I wear them all day, I don’t feel like wearing them outside of work. I brought two jean jackets but those are much too heavy to wear now. Over the summer, I had read how every indoor facility is over air-conditioned to the point of freezing in an attempt to counteract the extreme heat outside, but that’s rarely the case. In the classroom and in the English Dept, if the air is too strong someone just opens a window. Hey, it’s a wealthy country, we might as well air-condition the outside, right? But I do wish I had brought more of a variety of light outerwear just to spice up my wardrobe. I’ve already heard more than once, “Teacher, is your favorite color black?”

Pants- I’m one of the lucky ladies who can wear them to work. The stipulation is that your backside needs to be covered by a tunic or longer sweater. I bought two long sweaters today because I so desperately want to wear the black pants I brought. Again I wish I had more variety but I didn’t think there was a chance in H-E- double hockey sticks that slacks would be part of my dress code. I’ve had to shop so much for apartment furnishings in the past month that I just don’t feel like looking for new clothes at the moment. Until now I’ve worn a maxi skirt, black t-shirt and black cardigan to work every day. I feel like an Amish lady so that’s gonna have to change soon.

Shoes- As a size 9, I can find some shoes here but I’ve seen numerous styles that are only stocked to size 8. I brought about a dozen pair of various black shoes- wedges, heels, flats, Sketchers, etc. I bought a second pair of Dansko “teacher shoes” right before leaving the U.S. but don’t like them as much as my first pair so I was still wearing the old ones all the time. They’re super-comfy but the sand has settled into the cushion layer and it bothers me so I wash them often, which has already ruined them. Super-sad face for sure. On a happy note, this experience has helped me decide that my next blog will be titled “Sand in My Shoes;” the first runner-up was “Sand in my Apartment.”

Abayas (dresses)- These can be bought in a regular store or custom-made. A few of the dozen English teachers at my school wear abayas to work simply to make dressing in the morning easy. I haven’t bought any yet but am contemplating picking one up somewhere down the line in case I need it for a future function. Many of them are quite elaborate and you can have them tailored to fit perfectly, and they’re supposedly light, airy, and comfortable to wear in the heat. Of course, the most popular color is black, which used to be my ultimate favorite but I’m starting to think I need a little more happy in my life than all-black clothes and shoes provide.

Shaylas/Sheilas (head covering)- Again, we don’t have to cover our hair at work but are allowed to if we so choose. I haven’t done this either, not because I like my hair but because I look so much older with it under wraps. It reminds me of when I put a towel on my head after a shower. No thanks.

Dresses- It would have been easier to bring some cute outfits from home than shop for them here. At night, everyone wears sleeveless blouses and dresses and no one looks twice. All the clubs and bars here are just as rowdy as at home. Bands (though not nearly as good as at home), DJs, cocktails, it’s all here. There is no lack of nightlife, either- it’s just restricted to the hotels because of the liquor license laws. The hotels here are awesome and have fabulous restaurants, quaint pubs, crazy bars and nightclubs. The crowd rolls in late; the “see and be seen” places don’t get going until after midnight. I’d like to say I’m home by then but have stayed out long enough to know when things really start happening around here. The dresses grow shorter as the night grows longer.

I’m about to go online and order myself some clothes and shoes. I’ll send them to my sister’s so the girls can bring me a full suitcase when they come to visit at Christmas. All it takes to make me happy is a little hope on the horizon!

At the Grand Mosque

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