Monday, March 29, 2010

Mom's UAE adventure

Guest-blogger: Rebecca (aka "Shannon's Mom")

How to describe my adventure in the UAE briefly is a huge challenge. After so many weeks of planning and anticipation, it’s hard to believe it has come and gone so quickly, with so many memories to savor.

Shannon and Sam spared no effort to make my visit memorable. Being with them was the primary goal for me, and after the 24 hour trip going over there, it was thrilling to see them on the other side of customs and to be able to exchange real hugs. However, I was enchanted by everything I experienced with them each day, beginning with their lovely 9th floor apartment. It has high ceilings and marble floors, plus floor to ceiling windows with an expansive view of the city. In the foreground are countless shops and villas and the mosque next door. I learned from the first morning to embrace the inescapable 5:15 am call to prayer as part of the experience.

There is construction everywhere in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In Dubai, because of recent economic factors, much of it has come to a standstill, leaving it with an almost ghost-town feel in some parts. However, in Abu Dhabi it is non-stop, with cranes perched on top of rising skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. Each city boasts every extreme architectural design imaginable. It’s sort of “Gotham City meets the Middle East.” Some resemble gigantic sails of a dhow, an ancient Arabian vessel. One in Abu Dhabi is being built to imitate the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but much larger. I learned that there is an intense sense of competition between the two cities in several arenas, but especially in contemporary architectural design.

Hotels are good examples of architectural superlatives. My favorites include the exquisite Burj Al Arab in Dubai, shaped like a sail that soars over 1,000 feet and perched on the waters edge of an artificial island. We spent an evening there mesmerized by the indoor fountains that entertained us with “dancing” tubes of water filled with streaks of light and choreographed to resemble dolphins leaping in a variety of rhythms.

Another example of extreme grandeur, is the sprawling 7-Star Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. It is breathtakingly beautiful and opulent, and is used to host a range of art exhibits and cultural events.

I was impressed by the Emiratis’ devotion to the arts. While at Emirates Palace we visited an exhibit with elaborate models of the Saadiyat Island project, a small city dedicated to art and culture to be built on an island adjacent to Abu Dhabi. We drove past the Island en route to and from Dubai, and could see the vast simultaneous construction underway. Saadiyat Island, meaning Island of Happiness, will eventually house the largest Guggenheim in the world, a branch of the Louvre Art Museum, and a campus for the Sorbonne. The project scheduled for completion in 2018 at a cost of $27 billion dollars. Talk about architectural extremes!

Although highlighted in an earlier blog posting, I have to mention the beautiful Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Also called the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, it features 80 domes decorated with gleaming white marble and 1,000 columns embedded with more than 20,000 handmade marble panels encrusted with semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell and mother of pearl. The enormous prayer halls are lined with wall-to-wall Persian carpets. The only thing I could imagine being more resplendent would be Solomon’s Temple, as described in the Old Testament. Like all female visitors, Shannon and I were required to cover up in the abayas furnished by the Mosque.

Another wild architectural sight is the Burj Khalifa, aka Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world at over 2,700 feet, soaring heavenward like a giant rocket ship. Tours to the 124th floor were recently suspended, but just looking up from the ground was more than enough for me!

To my surprise, the favorite gathering places in the UAE are malls, but not malls like I’ve ever seen before. For starters, there is the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai which features an actual ski slope! We lingered over lunch while watching skiers make their way up the chair lift and down the slopes, wondering how much it costs in a desert climate to maintain the freezing temperature on the other side of the windows.

We spent a full day roaming the extraordinary Dubai Mall, one of the largest in the world, spreading over 440,000 square feet in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa. It’s filled with an enormous aquarium, an ice rink, theater, and exquisite high end shops on several floors. (Shopping is a past time there, and those who wear robes, dishdashas for men and abayas for women, don expensive designer fashions and shoes underneath them, which they show off in private only.)

The piece de resistance is the Fountain of Dubai, the largest in the world, which choreographs the movements of the water to stirring music. Lights within the fountain illuminate the water as it is thrust as high as 500 feet into the air by various types of water robots that pan and tilt to make the water seem to dance. I read that 6,600 super lights and 25 color projectors make the fountain viewable from over 20 miles away.

I feel like I ate my way around the UAE! My favorite culinary experience, however, was at the Lebanese Flower, a family-owned restaurant within walking distance of the apartment. We ate on the colorfully lit patio, literally stuffing ourselves with a banquet of grilled lamb, chicken, beef and vegetables, along with delicious falafel, served with whipped goat cheese, hummus and pita bread. Sam and Scott (a friend from graduate school who happened to be stopping through town on his way to Lahore on business) topped their feast off with grape and apple shishas, or hookah pipes, customarily indulged in by both men and women, especially after a meal.

Monday the 15th came all too quickly, as it was my last official day there. Shannon and Sam had one last sortie in mind to Al Ain on the Oman border to experience sunset at the top of Jabel Hafeet, a craggy mountain that rises out of the desert where a hotel has been built at the top. Al Ain has been continuously inhabited for over 4,000 years and is built around a large natural oasis. It is celebrated as the birthplace of the late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE. In contrast to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there are no high rises, nothing taller than perhaps 5 stories, all built in the old Arabian style of architecture. Unfortunately, we were forced to view the sunset from the road as it took longer than expected to get to the top. But we had dinner at the hotel, from where we could see the lights of Al Ain, before heading back down and across the desert highway towards the Abu Dhabi airport.

Sadly, it was time to face the inevitable goodbye. I wasn’t quite ready to head back to reality, but as the saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.” While I treasure each experience I had in that brief week, my greatest satisfaction was simply being with Shannon and Sam.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A little perspective

I’ve lived a sheltered life.

This weekend Abu Dhabi is hosting the Red Bull Air Race, and today the pilots are making practice runs through an obstacle course setup in the harbour along the Corniche. My office is nearby, so all day we’ve been listening to the sound of prop planes making the circuit. I flippantly remarked to my colleague that it sounded like we’re being attacked, like an air raid. And he said “except it is not followed by the sound of shelling.” And I realized (and instantly regretted my comment) that he was speaking from experience. See, he is a Palestinian who lived in Beirut for most of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War.

My first exposure to war other than in history books was when my 5th grade class made yellow ribbons to support the troops during Desert Storm. The most personal war has ever felt to me was to witness the 9/11 attacks...on TV...from 2000 miles away. But this man who has the office next to mine has lived and breathed war. He knows what it feels like to run for cover. He remembers the way the buildings shook when a missile passed by, the fine dust covering everything in the hospital when he found his brother, who had been injured by shrapnel in a blast but thankfully not killed. He remembers the fear of not knowing who had not survived.

He is only the second person I’ve ever known who has been a civilian on the front lines of war, and he is the first to talk to me openly about it. War literally tore his family apart and they are now living scattered around the world, citizens without a country. With his passport much of the world is closed to him. Yet he is able to laugh about how his college buddy slept right through the worst of the bombings, feet propped up on the table, snoring like a buzz saw. He is able to talk to me about the necessity of teaching his children about peace. The resilience of human beings is astounding. I’ve had a couple of days this week where I’ve felt sorry for myself for one reason or another – Now I can hardly remember why.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ignorance isn't bliss

People rarely get pulled over for speeding in the UAE. They certainly do speed, but the government has devised a system of cameras (some hidden; some not) and radar sensors throughout the roadways as the primary means of catching guilty parties. When someone is speeding through one of these traps, the camera takes a picture of the license plate and the information gets sent directly to the Traffic Department, who in turn notifies the offender by text message that they’ve been caught red-handed. Sounds pretty high-tech and efficient, huh?

Sam and I decided not to buy a car when we arrived but to get a long-term rental instead. When we picked up our rental car last fall, one of the perks the Hertz agent pointed out to us was that if we received a speeding ticket Hertz would be notified and would pay it immediately and then just bill us for it later. This way we wouldn’t have to deal with going down to the traffic department headquarters, waiting in line, coming up with the money right away, etc. Sounds pretty convenient, huh?

But here is where process begins defeating purpose. Since we don’t physically get pulled over, thus imprinting the fear and shame associated with speeding as well as the mental note never to speed in that spot again, and because our rental agency intercepts the automatic notification when the camera-cops capture our indiscretions, we can actually go months without knowing we were breaking the law, much less being punished for it. And forget about disputing a ticket -- Do you remember exactly where you were driving and how fast you were going at 5:12 pm on December 8th? Maybe you’ll remember 1:19 pm on December 25th, but how about 12:59 pm on January 22nd? Does 11:51 am on January 30th ring any bells?

Well, apparently it should for us. Last week while at Hertz to re-up our lease, I learned that Sam and I have racked up four speeding tickets on the dates listed above -- count ‘em: 1-2-3-4, in 6 months!! [By the way, lest you fear driving with us in the future, before moving here Sam and I had a combined total of 2 speeding tickets throughout our entire driving careers]. When I all but jumped across the counter to wring the messenger’s neck, he apologetically handed me a printout of our infractions, which simply lists the date, time, and amount of each fine. It doesn’t even give the address of the alleged speeding!

Though the sight makes my stomach sink, I think I actually prefer the cold, hard certainty of flashing red lights in the rear-view mirror.