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!

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.

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.

Mitter

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!

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.

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.

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