Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The storm of the century

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the “storm of the century,” but after four months in Abu Dhabi with barely a cloud in the sky, much less a raindrop, a three-day downpour felt like an epic event. Apparently, this happens once every 1-2 years, though from the way people reacted it seemed like it was not part of recent memory. It started on the day we went into the desert for Christmas caroling, a few sprinkles that caused us all to chuckle at the irony. But it continued a second day (and our drive to Dubai for the film festival became more stressful than anticipated, as we passed at least three deadly accidents on the way), and then escalated throughout the third and final day to a tropical-force storm, so that my little Toyota had to wade much of the way home from work in water up over its wheels.

As might be expected in the desert, the city’s drainage system is not very effective. During the 360 dry days of the year, the water repositories become full of sand and trash, meaning that when they are at last needed they are already clogged, causing the streets to flood. This in turn causes people to panic and forget the few rules of the road that they actually follow on a normal day (like obeying signal lights), and the result was gridlock unlike anything I’ve seen. It took me over an hour to drive three city blocks because each intersection was a jigsaw puzzle of cars stopped and facing every which way, unable to get through (these intersections by the way, are massive, between 6-8 lanes going in 5 different directions at times).

I would have found this situation amusing had it not also been dangerous, with rain still coming down in sheets and the sun having set. At first I tried to pay attention to the signal lights (stop on red, only go on green if there’s room in the intersection, etc) but with cars angrily passing me on both sides I realized this strategy might not get me home before morning, if at all. With the old “if you can’t beat ‘em” adage in mind, I gritted my teeth, gripped the wheel and wove my way through each remaining light, regardless of its color, honking with the best of them. I’ve now lost the right to criticize other drivers for acting crazy, but I did make it safely to our parking lot where Sam was waiting to welcome me home. After many sighs of relief, I pried my fingers from the wheel and we went upstairs to our dry --well, except for the fresh leak in the kitchen ceiling-- apartment.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in the sand

Spending holidays away from home is never easy...


...but somehow we managed!

Wishing you a merry Christmas from Abu Dhabi!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Caroling in the dunes

We’ve seen our share of sand and dust since arriving, but recently we had our first true experience in the desert wilderness (aka "the empty quarter"). Our church organized a campsite about 30 miles from Abu Dhabi city, and we spent the afternoon exploring the dunes, barbecuing kebabs and s’mores, and singing Christmas carols by flashlight. Ironically, this was also the first day that it rained in Abu Dhabi since we arrived (the first of a three-day torrential downpour, but more on that later); fortunately, it abated during the hours we were outside, so it was actually quite nice out, albeit too cloudy to see the stars. We had a wonderful time in the company of mostly Britons, which became incredibly obvious when we sang carols written in Old English (and set to the wrong tunes...of course, the American tunes are the right ones!) and were given mince pies for dessert (another first – Sam thumbs up; Shannon thumbs down). It was a great way to get us in the Christmas spirit -- Here are some pics of the desert, which was truly beautiful:

By nightfall there were a few hundred people in attendance, several of whom set up camp to stay the night (we weren't that brave).

Walking in the desert is harder than it looks. In this shot I'm starting to realize that wearing shoes was a bad idea and I'm about to take them off and abandon them for the rest of our hike.

The wind was strong and would whip up the sand so you couldn't see. It was quickly apparent why the bedouin people where head scarves.

 Sam takes in the view  -- nothing but sand for miles.

Makes you feel pretty small in comparison.

Here's Sam doing his best Thesiger.

We got a late start heating up our grill, and an Australian family at the grill next to ours took quite an interest in whether we could get it going.

After a lot of unsolicited advice, a few squirts of lighter fluid and a lot of love from Sam, we had success!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Going postal

Last week I went to the Abu Dhabi post office for the first time, and like many things you do for the first time in a new country, it was slow and complicated. I assumed it would work the same as a US post office– you address a package, wait in line, have it metered, pay the postage and be done with it. This was a silly assumption. Family, if you don’t receive our Christmas gifts this year (or our Christmas cards, for that matter), this might be why…

Though all perfectly pleasant and full of smiles, none of the 4 postal workers who helped me mail 3 packages and 8 envelopes spoke more than 5 words of English. They seemed just as perplexed that I did not speak Arabic, and in fact, kept speaking to me in Arabic as if I would be able to understand. In a country where English is the typical marketplace medium, it was most surprising to have this happen in the post office!

I’ll skip most of the boring details, involving waiting in lines, filling out forms, and desperately trying to understand what people were saying to me, but at one point our box bound for Dallas and our box bound for Chicago had the barcodes reversed. I watched this happen and had to reach across the counter and point out the problem. The woman helping me at this point kept trying to say both packages were going to the same country, while I was trying to explain, using little more than hand gestures, that the USA is a very big place.

While the woman, and now her colleague, tried to rectify the mis-matched barcodes, I discovered that they had changed “US” to “UK” in the system. I wouldn’t have known it, except I heard the letters “UK” during a discussion they were having in Arabic, which again prompted me to lean over the counter and look at the computer screen. Sure enough, Great Britain had been assigned as the new destination. When I pointed out the error, both ladies giggled and looked at me like I was crazy, but after a bit more discussion they did change it back to US, and, I think, got the appropriate barcodes attached to the right boxes. Only time will tell. In any event, they will probably not make it home in time for Christmas, so hopefully "the thought that counts" will apply.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Knowing when to leave

A bit more about you can see from our pictures we had a great time, saw beautiful sites, learned a lot about the city's history and found the people delightfully friendly. But starting about 6 hours before our return flight home, China started to show us to the door. It was as if the whole city knew we weren’t supposed to be there any longer and was conspiring to make sure we knew it too. We finished a late lunch of mutton and sweet potatoes (cooked hot pot style) at a neighborhood diner we had stumbled upon while trying to find an ATM. Feeling warmed from the delicious food and the hospitality of the family running the diner, we headed back into the biting cold for the next item on our agenda, a visit to the Panjiayuan Market which is similar to a flea market. It took us an hour to get across town in a cab, and by then the sun had begun to set, dropping the temperature below freezing. We ducked into the market only to remember that in the excitement of lunch we had never found an ATM. Without cash the market wouldn’t be very fun, so we turned around and walked several blocks the other direction until we found a bank, and returned 30 minutes later to find that most of the stalls had closed early. A few were still packing up, so we rummaged and haggled as much as possible in twenty minutes.

By this time it was completely dark and the wind had whipped up so that our toes were frozen and it was nearly unbearable to be outside. We decided to skip ahead on our itinerary and have an early dinner at a restaurant we had seen reviewed in the New York Times. We weren’t very hungry but at least it would be warm. The problem was that none of three cab drivers that we hailed knew where it was (or they couldn’t understand our pronunciation of the Chinese—most people in the service industry do not speak English), and at least 2 of the 3 seem to be suffering from night blindness and could not read the address we had written down in Chinese. On our third attempt we made it to the general vicinity of the restaurant and then had to proceed on foot. After meandering a bit we realized we were not going to find it before I passed out from the cold, so we got into our fourth cab of the hour and headed back across town to the hotel, figuring we could just go to the airport early and eat dinner in the terminal.

A couple hours later we had arrived at the airport, checked in, and found a table at Kenny Roger’s Roasters (after four days of Chinese food this sounded appealing). We ordered two roast chicken dinners, in response to which the waiter replied in broken English “no chicken,” and proceeded to point to a picture of chow mein on the menu. Astonished and dismayed that a restaurant espousing to have the “world’s best chicken” could be out of chicken at dinner time, we finished our drinks and cornbread and left in search of another restaurant.

We saw on the airport map that there were three restaurants near our gate, so we went through security and immigration and finally made it to our gate around 10 pm. We found the first restaurant closed and abandoned. The second literally shut off its lights as we approached, the hostess eerily beaming at my distraught reaction. The third and final option was a coffee shop, which mercifully was open. I was still chilled from the day so I ordered hot coffee only to be told they were out. I, patient and tactful as always, say to the girl behind the counter, "What kind of airport is this? No chicken at the chicken restaurants or coffee in the coffee shops?!" She remained sweet and composed and offered me tea instead. And for dinner, our choices were whatever remained in the glass cases, the only food appearing edible being plain croissants and Lays potato chips. Bon App├ętit! We handed over our credit card to pay the 145 yuan (about $20) but were informed rather sheepishly that the credit card machine was closed for the night. We had purposefully used the rest of our Chinese currency earlier that day and had only 15 yuan. Hungry, tired, and frustrated, I felt tears beginning to form, but then heard a man behind us say “it’s on me.” This kind stranger, who thankfully spoke English, turned out to be an English teacher from Singapore who had been traveling with his students. He graciously paid for our measly dinner, and after eating and thanking him profusely, he responded by handing us his business card and saying if we ever visited Singapore he would love to host us. Worried he would offer us one of his kidneys next, we thanked him again and boarded our flight. Yes, it was definitely time to leave.

Our last real meal.

Should've had the chow mein.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Sam and Shannon went to China

and ate duck

and bamboo...with chopsticks.

They explored hutongs

and saw a Ming gate

where Shannon sat on a throne.

They saw statues

and live soldiers.

They strolled through the expansive Tiananmen Square

and made friends

and Sam put Mao on his shoulder.

They entered the Forbidden City

and oohhed and aahhed at the beauty.

They climbed up to the White Pagoda at Bei Hai park.

They saw Chinese men playing games.

They did not ride in that...though they were asked to many times.

They saw Confucius

and the Chinese version of 5th Avenue

followed by an intense 5 minutes in a night market (they were offered fried scorpion on a stick, but they declined!).

They saw the Great Wall

and climbed it.

Boy is it steep!

and the views are exquisite.

They ate noodles for lunch (Sam was starving)

and explored the Ming tombs,

where they met the Emperor (Yongle) who built the Great Wall as we know it today

and they watched the sunset.

They saw stone dragons

and Mary

and the first Christian missionary to China (Matteo Ricci).

They went to the Temple of Heaven

and it was heavenly

and so cold!

and despite all this culture, they found they were still American, and nothing hits the spot like a Big Mac after a long, cold day of sightseeing.