Friday, September 30, 2011

Losing Abu Dhabi

I’ve never been much good at goodbyes. I feel like I should have something profound or at least funny to say, but in the moment I end up being shy and awkward, sputtering out something trite like “it was nice knowing you – take care.” So when I realized I needed to write my final post, I put it off. Admittedly, I’ve also been busier than I anticipated, since I found myself fully employed only days after we arrived, but mostly I’ve been ignoring you all, avoiding the inevitable.

Honestly, I could keep this blog going for some time, as I have a laundry list of impressions and experiences about the transition back to the U.S. – our brief trip to Boston, seeing our families again, the culture shock of living in the South (or strange lack thereof) – that have been accumulating since we left Abu Dhabi. Sometimes I find myself blogging in my head, trying to find the best way to describe my current cultural predicament and wishing I had my camera in hand.

But with Sam fully engaged in school and I immersed in my new work life, it just doesn’t feel right to keep this blog going. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with so much change in my relatively short life, but at least for now I need to leave behind all things Abu Dhabi, not to keep comparing then and now, or there with here, but to face forward and embrace what lies ahead. And it would seem that my new schedule and work responsibilities are forcing me to take a good long break from blogging any topic.

So, I guess this is goodbye. It was nice knowing you. Take care.

Coming full circle...Sam and I take our last photo in Abu Dhabi just before our plane leaves the ground.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hazardous humanitarianism

Those of you who follow our blog on any sort of regular basis know that it has been several weeks since our last post, and most likely you also know this is because we have been in the process of moving back to the States and settling in our new home/jobs in Tallahassee, Florida. Well, so far so good! Hopefully, Shannon will be able to get back to writing soon and can fill you in on the details. But for now I want to talk about something else.

Not long before we left Abu Dhabi I tagged along on a charitable excursion that turned out to be a profound learning experience about volunteerism. I intentionally delayed writing about it because of a minor (and perhaps paranoid) fear that it might incriminate me or others, but also because I wanted some time to reflect on what happened. The purpose of this post is not to lay blame at the feet of anyone in particular, but is more of a cautionary tale, if you like, so that others might avoid what I experienced.

At the church we attended in Abu Dhabi, an announcement was made that a small group of people external to the church had collected a large number of toiletries and clothing donations for a labor camp in Ajman, the smallest and probably poorest of the seven emirates, and were now recruiting volunteers to help distribute the items to the laborers. Even before moving to the UAE I had heard of the deplorable conditions plaguing many of the labor camps, and had hoped that while living there I'd find a way to help those who often end up living lives of de facto indentured servitude. It had turned out to be more difficult than you might think to volunteer for such activities - you can't just show up at the local soup kitchen - so I jumped at this opportunity.

A few days later I rode with a convoy of cars, followed by a truck loaded with the donations, out to the labor camp in Ajman. With our conspicuous arrival to the camp, it didn’t take long for the workers, most of whom were Bangladeshi, Indian, or Pakistani men, to congregate around our vehicles. We were warmly greeted by smiling faces caked in ubiquitous grey dust - evidence of that day's work mixing concrete on the industrial site adjacent to the camp.

As instructed by our group's organizer, our first task was to hand out one empty bag to each worker, which he would then use to collect one of each item we had brought. The “plan” was to have each volunteer take charge of 2-3 piles of items (e.g. bars of soap, pairs of socks) and have the workers walk by each station in a single file line, holding out their empty bags as volunteers added one of each item. Sounds doable, right? 

The first complication arose when we attempted to queue up the men to receive their empty bags. It was during this exercise that I witnessed the degree to which “the line” is a cultural concept, and one that doesn’t hold much cache in south Asia. Even with a translator helping us explain the process, it proved a futile task. In the end, we just waded in among the men and handed out the bags as best as possible. But we discovered that some men were collecting a bag, going off and hiding it, and then coming back and asking for another bag. We had no system in place to prevent them doing this other than the possibility that we would recognize someone who had already been given a bag (and with just about every man wearing the traditional shalwar kameez, this proved difficult, to say the least).

Once the bags were finally distributed, the volunteers manned our respective piles of items while simultaneously trying to direct the men to proceed through each station in an orderly fashion. This went more smoothly than the empty-bag distribution had, although we continuously had to urge the men to move back a few steps because they were increasingly crowding the piles of goods. And after a while, it became evident that some men were going through the line multiple times, while the men who only went through once became visibly frustrated.

I'm not sure how the trend got started, but suddenly the men began bypassing the volunteers' handouts, reaching directly into the piles of donations next to us, and taking more than just one. In the process of doing so, they knocked over a young female volunteer next to me, and I actually had to use physical force to clear them away. Shortly after this development, a few workers got the idea to climb up into the truck and take entire bags of donations from their source, and this quickly spiraled out of control. Wanting to protect the remaining store of items, the truck driver started the engine and began pulling away, while our volunteers in the back literally fought off those trying to climb on board.

After driving around for a while the truck returned, and attempts to climb on board continued. At this point, the lead organizer who was in the back of the truck became so desperate, she began throwing the donations onto the ground, where they were immediately swarmed, of course only stoking the mob mentality that had descended upon the workers. It is important that I say here that this frenzy did not take hold of everyone; some of the workers were trying to keep their colleagues from taking the donations.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “why haven’t you left yet?!” Well, we were asking ourselves that same question. The problem was that a number of us were spread out across the grounds with no way of contacting each other (we had not thought to give each other our cell phone numbers beforehand), and no one wanted to leave until we had a full head count. Finally, with our stocks depleted and nothing left for the workers to take, they began to disperse. At last we were able to organize ourselves and collectively leave, each of us with a bitter taste in our mouth.

Humanitarianism sounds noble and praiseworthy, but without thoughtful planning has the potential of doing more harm than good. My purpose in saying this is not to discourage others from volunteering on behalf of the laborers; far from it! The labor camps house people who have unwittingly been stripped of many of their freedoms and are given barely enough to survive in return for long hours of back-breaking hours in extreme weather. While this particular attempt to bring aid to the camps was a bit of a disaster, I know there are extremely successful aid efforts led by competent individuals. My biggest mistake was that I assumed the organizer knew what she was doing and so asked no questions. And while our organizer had good intentions, her biggest mistake was simple lack of planning.

So my advice to those bleeding hearts out there is to keep looking for ways to help, but to ask lots of questions before you join any effort. Ask how you’re getting to and from the site, how the aid will be distributed, and what the plan is for the safety of the volunteers as well as the recipients. After our debacle, I later learned that those particular workers hadn’t been paid in six months! It's no wonder they acted with such desperation. I wish I had known that beforehand. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Quitting the UAE: a 12-step program, part 2

Step 5: Close locally-held financial accounts. For us, this was an HSBC credit card, checking and savings accounts. We didn't have any loans, so I can't comment on how to clear these, but the process is probably similar. To be safe, start two weeks prior to your drop-dead date. Before you begin you may want to transfer most of your checking/savings balance to your home bank so that you don't have to walk around carrying all your cash. And once again, it's best to go to the main branch and skip any middle men.

On your first visit you will pay off and cancel your credit cards. Once you've submitted the paperwork, they call you to confirm the cancellation, and if you don't answer they won't follow through. My phone call came 2 days later. Make sure any transfers are confirmed in your home bank and your credit card account is closed before going back to the branch for the second visit, to close your checking and savings accounts. At this time, apply for a letter of no liability, which says you don't owe the bank any money. They will charge a small fee (ours was 50 dirhams). Your final visit, 2-3 business days later, will be to pick up the "no liability" letter.

Step 6: Apply for cancellation of residence visa. This can be done up to 30 days prior to your flight out of the country. My company's visa officer handled the paperwork for me, but I was required to present my passport as well as the passports of anyone I sponsor (i.e. Sam). A day later, the visa officer returned them to me, residence visas inside now stamped with an expiration date 30 days out, at which point Sam and I will officially no longer be welcome here.

Step 7: Cancel your utilities. My employer handled the water and electric clearance, but I had to call the gas company myself. A man came a few days later, wrote down the meter reading, took the gas knob so that I couldn't turn the gas back on, and gave me the address of the distributor office in order to go in person to pay my final bill and obtain the clearance certificate. Oh, and he said I could go only Sunday through Wednesday, between 3:30-5:30 pm to do this. What can I do to get working hours like that?

The next day we showed up in the appropriate window of time at a dilapidated high-rise building, and entered a disheveled office suite filled with stacks of heat-warped papers, one ancient copy machine, and filthy patchworks of threadbare carpet covering the floor. We heard children playing in the next room. We gave our final meter reading to the man behind the desk and asked him how much we owed, skeptical that he could find the answer in such a mess. He told us to have a seat, and immediately began crunching numbers on his calculator. Ten minutes later, he arrived at a figure of 59 dirhams, which sounded good to us. We paid it in cash, and he handed us a clearance letter. Just like that - no return visits required? So simple! I left gratefully, the old adage never to judge a book by its cover ringing in my ears. 

Step 8: Get a housing clearance letter from your landlord, stating you don't owe for rent or damages. This will require some sort of walk-through of the apartment. In our case, a couple of men showed up unannounced and without any explanation, walked around our living room, checked the A/C vents and behind our curtains, asked our move-out date, and left. I was worried this couldn't possibly be enough information to go on; they didn't even look at the other rooms, but a couple of days later a letter was faxed to my employer. 

Step 9: Get rid of the evidence. For me, this meant deleting all my files and turning over my work-issued laptop, cell phone, employee ID, health insurance cards, and a library book. I never invested in my own laptop or phone while here, so this step was the equivalent of hitting rock bottom. I now had nothing left to tie me to my life here in Abu Dhabi, and was totally cut off from the outside world (well, until I borrowed my neighbor's computer to check email the next morning and again now to type this post). But still.

Step 10: Get paid. After steps 1-9 are complete, you should have all the signatures and letters you need to get your final paycheck and gratuity. I went yesterday afternoon to see my HR rep, who handed me a big fat check, shook my hand, and sent me on my way. What a feeling!

Of course, it was in dirhams, and I now had no UAE bank account, so I had to go this morning to my employer's bank to cash the check, then walk across the street to the Exchange with more money in my purse than I had ever carried at one time (it seemed a very long walk), in order to wire it to our bank in the U.S. All I can do is pray it makes it there (I won't find out for 3-4 days), as it is our livelihood for the next several months, or until I find a job, whichever comes first.

Step 11: Say your last goodbyes and finish your bucket list. We've had remarkable experiences the past two years and have no regrets, so for us, this only included finally going to the top of the Burj Khalifa.

Step 12: Pack your bags and board your flight. We'll let you know how this goes. For now, we're signing off for a while. Goodbye Abu Dhabi, and good luck!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Quitting the UAE: a 12-step program, part 1

Moving out of the UAE is akin to kicking a bad habit. It requires determination, support, and above all, time. There are those who skip the program and try to go cold turkey (you might call them "absconders," a term I had rarely heard used pre-UAE but is part of daily lingo here). This strategy is risky and rarely works in the long run, so we decided to go the route of legitimacy. After all, we want to be able to pass through the UAE in the future without being nabbed by the airport facial recognition software.

This goal required jumping through many hoops and waiting in many lines, each with their own peculiar pacing and pitfalls. There really should be some kind of support group for this endeavor, but alas, all those who succeed have, by definition, left the country. The only people around to advise you are those who have either never tried to quit or have fallen off the wagon. So I've decided to document our journey. It won't be exactly the same as yours, but perhaps will provide some guidance and encouragement when you find yourself in need.

Step 1: The first step to recovery is always to admit you have a problem. In our little analogy, this means quitting your job. Your employer is typically your sponsor, and without the permission of your sponsor you are legally not free to go. In the States we have a custom of giving "two-weeks notice" of resignation (if you're feeling generous you can give one month). But my UAE employer requires SIX MONTHS notice in order to leave without financial penalty. If your goal is to change employers, the 6-month rule is nearly impossible to keep without a) making a giant leap of faith that you will find a new job after you quit or b) staying with your current employer until you retire. Smart little buggers, they are.

I was fortunate that Sam found out about his acceptance to FSU exactly 6 months before we needed to be in Tallahassee for his fall semester, so I barely made it under the wire. At this point, my HR rep handed me a list of clearance letters and signatures that I must obtain in order to get my final paycheck and gratuity. Yours may look different from mine, but there will be a list, and it will be long. You can count on it.

Step 2: Plan your escape. One-way flights out of the UAE are steep, especially in the summer. Many companies pay for a repatriation ticket (mine did), but if you shop around and buy your tickets far enough in advance, you can pocket the extra cash. Once you know your drop-dead date for leaving the UAE, you can make a checklist of deadlines for the remaining steps. The key to reaching your goal in good health is good planning.

Step 3: Deal with your stuff. The longer you live in the UAE, the more baggage you'll have. Figure out what you want to take with you, what to sell or give away, and what to trash, and at what point you should do each of these things to put off "roughing it" as long as possible. Shipping an entire household from the UAE to the US is painfully expensive and takes about 2 months to reach the destination, so if you have a flat full of IKEA furniture like we did, the best plan is to sell it all to a newcomer. In our case, my replacement at work is moving into our apartment when we leave and taking all of our furniture and appliances for a lump sum. This is the absolute best scenario - if you can figure out a way to make this happen, do it!

Step 4: Shut down your cable, internet and phone services. The weaning process begins now. In your last days you will be stripped of all things that make you feel at home here. This will make your determination to get out of dodge even greater, so embrace it. Etisalat requires one month notice to cancel all accounts. It took us a total of 5 visits to make this one stick, but it could have taken 3. Here's how to do it:

Exactly one month before you want your accounts to close, go to the main headquarters on Airport Road (the building with the giant golf ball on top). It may seem like a shortcut to call the service line or go to a branch, but this is a trap and will cost you a couple of hours of your life only to start again at ground zero. Go to the fourth floor and get a ticket for "Cessations." Bring your passport and last bill with you. They will schedule your account to close (and all services to shut off) one month to the date.

On the scheduled shut-off date, you should find by that morning that you can't get online. At this point, go back to headquarters and apply for a clearance certificate (also on the fourth floor). They will give you a ticket stub and tell you to come back the following day between noon and 3 pm to meet with the man at counter #17. The counter number may change, but I suspect the Wizard of Oz feel of it won't. On your third and final visit, show the appropriate "man behind the curtain" your ticket stub, he will tell you your final amount owed (estimate ahead of time and bring enough cash with you for this), and after payment will give you a clearance certificate. Take it, Dorothy, and don't look back.

Before you start to hyperventilate, let's break for the night and resume the remaining steps tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Final countdown

We move back to the U.S. on Friday. Friday! By this point, there is not much left to do except pack our suitcases and get our final clearances (this process will be a post all by itself), which leaves plenty of time for daydreaming about the things, some more frivolous than others, that I am most looking forward to having back in my life...

10) Target. I was always fond of you but will never take you for granted again.

9) Customer service (in-store, online, by phone...any form will be an improvement).

8) Online services that work - (with free shipping, oh my!), Netflix, and Pandora.

7) Using street addresses rather than relying on what may or may not be shared knowledge of landmarks to give/get directions.

6) Store-bought bread that isn't stale by the time I get it home.

5) No more conversions in my head (dirhams to dollars; Celsius to Fahrenheit; grams to ounces; UK English to U.S. English; it's tiresome).

4) Tex-Mex, BBQ, and real pizza.

3) Sleeping through the night...without 4 am call to prayer.

View of the mosque outside our bedroom window

2) Being in the same time zone (or within 1 or 2 hours) of the people who matter most to us.

1) Being home for the holidays, and not missing major events in the lives of friends and family. Or minor ones, for that matter.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: Asha's

Sam and I became huge fans of Indian cuisine during our years in Cambridge (Massachusetts), a city awash with mouthwatering, all-you-can-eat Indian food buffets at student-approved prices. We had high hopes for similar prospects in the UAE, given its proximity to India and large Indian-expat community. So several months ago when a reader asked if I could provide a recommendation for a good Indian restaurant in Abu Dhabi, I was saddened to realize I couldn't think of anything.

We usually try new restaurants based on word of mouth or online reviews, but what we've heard and seen in the Indian-food department has been lacking. Even a search for reviewed Indian restaurants in Time Out Abu Dhabi returns only two results for the island, both of which serve only vegetarian dishes.

So when a colleague of mine, who happens to be of Indian descent, suggested we try Asha's in the Khalidiya Mall, we took it to heart. I had passed by it a half a dozen times before and noticed its tastefully colorful decor, but having been duped into eating sub-par food by fancy interior design more times than I care to count, I had hesitated to go in without an endorsement first. Now having one in hand, Sam and I went at the next available opportunity.

Apparently, it's a fairly large chain, with locations in the UK and Middle East, owned by Bollywood singer Asha Bohsle. We are usually snobbish about restaurant chains (especially one located inside a shopping mall), preferring to patronize locally-owned establishments, but this place deserves praise. Don't let it's mall location put you off; it's a full-service dining room, sparkling clean and easily accessible on the ground floor.

A meal will certainly cost you more than it would in the mall's food court, but not as much as it would in a hotel (especially since it doesn't serve alcohol), and believe me when I say 50 dirhams per dish is money well spent. We've eaten there twice now, and it has been consistently outstanding in every respect.

Just after seating, the waiter brings freshly-fried papadums with three relishes (hot pepper, cilantro, and sweet mango chutney). Warm and flaky, this complimentary starter is the equivalent to unlimited chips and salsa served at Mexican restaurant. Similarly, you have to pace yourself so you have room to eat your main course.

Piping hot garlic naan, perfectly steamed basmati rice, vegetarian mutter, and our personal favorite: butter chicken, so rich and tender you won't feel a need for dessert.

Eating at Asha's will be definitely go on the list of things we'll miss about Abu Dhabi. Try it - you'll thank us!

Monday, July 11, 2011

In limbo

I’ve had serious writer’s block lately, not for lack of content (there are so many topics rolling around in my head they are crashing into each other), but because I’ve been waiting for some time to find out whether I would be offered a job in Tallahassee. I had a second-round interview in mid-June, and was informed a couple of weeks ago that they were checking my references; since then, nothing but the sound of crickets and self-doubt.

Hyperactive planner that I am, I felt that until I knew the result, I couldn’t write about anything with certainty, not even to review a restaurant or relay our recent trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa. It seemed as if someone had pressed a pause button in my mind, keeping me from fully experiencing the action around me. So my last day of work came and went, our flight home looms only 10 days ahead, and I have been remiss in my self-prescribed duty to blog it.

Sam and I are living somewhat of a purgatorial existence. Our residence visas have been cancelled (giving us 30 days to leave the country). As I type this, our movers are in the other room packing our possessions to ship them across the Atlantic, leaving us with only the bare necessities. We’ve returned our rental car to Hertz, closed our UAE bank account (so long, HSBC!) and said most of our goodbyes to friends and colleagues. We know a vague outline of our future, but the details are fuzzy. And if you are still wondering if I got the job, so am I.

We continue to wait and wonder, but I’ve decided to stop holding my breath.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Norman Foster tour of Abu Dhabi: part 2

If you’re looking for a different experience in Abu Dhabi this summer, then you might enjoy a visit to Masdar City. Foster & Partners began construction on it in 2007 with the intention that it become the first city in the world with a zero-carbon footprint (though perhaps carbon-neutral is a more accurate term), and one that might serve as a sort of giant lab for the research and development of sustainable technologies for urban applications (“Masdar” is Arabic for “source”). And what better (and more ironic) place than Abu Dhabi to host such an endeavor!

In all seriousness, Abu Dhabi should be commended for supporting this project, because Sheikh Khalifa and the rest of the al Nahyans know as well as anyone that one day the oil will run dry (I’ve heard estimates of about a century though I have no idea how accurate that may be.). Of course, only time will tell how committed Abu Dhabi is to applying lessons learned from Masdar City to its own infrastructure.

Getting to the site isn’t terribly involved. You simply drive as if you’re heading to Abu Dhabi’s airport, and a couple of kilometers before you reach it, you’ll see signs for Masdar City. It’s not difficult, but you might want to consult Google maps before going.

When my sister and I went back in March, the guard at the front entrance told us that we needed an appointment in order to tour the facility, much to our chagrin. But then he proceeded to say that, if we so desired, we could just head to the onsite café to catch a quick glimpse. We thanked him and drove a short distance in the direction he pointed (which led into a parking garage), left the car behind, and walked in the only logical direction we could discern, eventually passing through some automatic sliding doors into what looked to be the year 2050.

In front of us were arranged a row of smallish white pods, each in its own docking station. Fighting flashbacks of Mork “hatching” from his egg-shaped spaceship, we walked a bit closer to one of the docks. As we approached, the automatic doors to the nearest pod quietly slid open. Not sure whether we were trespassing, we were momentarily frozen. A guard was casually looking in our direction and so not wanting to appear as if we didn’t belong, we stepped into the pod and sat down, the doors automatically closing behind us.

An LCD touch screen display beckoned us to press a green “play” arrow, which we discovered sends the pod off towards a pre-programmed destination. Just to be clear, this mode of transportation is unlike the automated trams you might take between terminals in an airport. Instead, these pods have wheels and drive independently of each other or of any sort track, giving you the eerie feeling that your vehicle has been hijacked by an unseen force (which it has, I suppose). Foster intended that Masdar City be car-free and pedestrian-friendly, and so consequently included these driverless electric cars to ferry people to various destinations on a circuit that runs throughout the complex. And of course, this also helps decrease the city’s carbon footprint.

During the relaxing, though somewhat unnerving, two-minute “drive” towards our unknown destination, we ascertained that the large area in which the pods moved was built beneath the city itself. This also fed into another design component that illustrates the way in which Foster combines modern technologies with traditional construction techniques: replicating a centuries-old practice, Masdar City is built atop a nearly 23-foot high base in order to capitalize on the greater wind velocity existing above ground level. As a result, the city is naturally cooled and thus requires less electricity to maintain comfortable temperatures.

Once we “docked,” and our pod’s doors opened, we exited, climbed a swirling staircase, walked through the nearest set of doors, and finally found ourselves in the city proper. As we looked around at the shade creating narrow pathways bordered by four-story buildings, I couldn’t help but think of the Souk at The Central Market, which incorporates a similar design. Additionally, the buildings, many of which are residential in nature, are covered in undulating panels inscribed with the familiar lattice work and mushrabiya patterns. I was later to learn that the panels are made of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, an extremely strong translucent plastic.

After walking down one of the narrow pathways, we came to what appeared to be a town square, filled with palm trees, fountains, and another nod by Foster to a traditional and sustainable method of cooling: a barjeel, or wind tower, which captures the strong winds above the city and uses their natural force to drive them downward into the city streets.

While Foster tends to rely on traditional methods to keep the city’s temperatures down, he looks to non-traditional ones when it comes to power generation. The city relies predominantly on solar energy, which is evidenced by the photovoltaic panels covering the rooftops of just about every building. And apparently, there is also a 54-acre field of giant solar panels outside of the city itself.

Once we completed our short walking tour of the city (it is a rather small area at this stage), we walked back to our pod in a slight state of wonder at what we had just seen. In the car on the way home (this time actually doing the driving), I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d been on a short holiday. With its creative synthesis of the age-old indigenous and contemporary non-indigenous, Masdar City’s vision of culturally and materially sustainable living is so unlike anything we experience in Abu Dhabi (perhaps with the exception of the Central Market’s Souk). Hopefully, this experiment will serve as an inspiration for Emiratis as they continue to forge their identity in this rapidly changing country.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The circle of expat life

The "revolving door" is a common metaphor used to describe the UAE, with its constant influx and outflow of expatriate workers. One might argue it is a large reason why the country has a difficult time building and maintaining a solid infrastructure. No matter the organization or industry, exiting expats so often take with them their institutional memory along with their expertise, especially if there hasn't been an overlap between the old and new hire, which is more of the norm (at least in my experience here).

Thus, energetic new arrivals end up re-doing or un-doing the work that their predecessor managed to accomplish, not out of malice or incompetence, but due to a lack of history and context. I think most residents of the UAE would agree the phenomenon results in a lot of "wheel re-creating" or "wheel spinning" or whichever wheel-based cliche you prefer.

Sam and I are now entering the final stages of the expat life-cycle. Because of our career plans, we never saw ourselves staying more than a few years, but we did come to Abu Dhabi with the intention of learning as much as possible about the region and doing whatever we could to leave a positive imprint. Still, now that I have witnessed the damaging effects that an unstable resident-base can have on progress, I do have to wonder whether we are becoming part of the problem.

Happily, I get the rare opportunity to have three weeks of overlap with my replacement, so I can do my part to avoid the institutional amnesia. The new "me" arrived on Friday with her husband, and so the past several days have been somewhat of an out-of-body experience for me as I watch her go through the same levels of shock and awe that I did nearly two years ago. It's fascinating to relive it, but this time with such a different perspective and minus all the anxiety. I couldn't even blog during my first two weeks (Sam wrote all the early posts) because my brain simply couldn't process my experiences into words on a page, but there was so much to document!

For the new expat, everything that used to seem simple is suddenly an ordeal - opening a checking account, getting connected to the internet, giving directions to a taxi driver (who in most cases also just arrived in the country), or just sifting through the advice that everyone you meet bestows upon you (solicited or not). You are prodded to make important life-altering decisions while feeling disoriented and jet lagged. And all of this is peripheral to learning the actual responsibilities of the job you've been hired to do. It's an enormous load to handle all at once, and it seems you'll never get it all straightened out.

It's rewarding to look back and see how far we've come from that first week or two. We're more cynical now, perhaps, but certainly wiser. And knowing that we were able to figure things out and even come to feel comfortable in our new surroundings makes entering the next phase of our life, with all of its uncertainties, seem much less daunting.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Norman Foster tour of Abu Dhabi: part 1

Living in Abu Dhabi has brought the unexpected benefit of witnessing the city’s nascent rise as a cultural center of the region, with perhaps the strongest innovations being in the area of architecture. “Surely sir, you jest!” might be the incredulous reply of those of us who are accustomed to seeing ubiquitous, god-awful amalgams of cement and glass around Abu Dhabi, testaments to the worst dehumanizing tendencies of modern Western architecture.

On our way to work or play, we drive past block after block of lifeless rows of buildings which look as if they were produced from the same mold, manufactured like so many widgets on an assembly line. Much of this type of construction was likely encouraged by an initial impulse of the UAE government back in the 1970s and 80s to hastily create an image of “sophistication” and “modernity” so as to be taken seriously on the global stage on which they were just beginning to find their footing. As a consequence, many structures were built without much thought for longevity, as they now stand in various states of decay.

Things began to change in the 90s with a realization that if the rapid pace of development continued, the Emirati cultural heritage would be in danger of being utterly lost. Consequently, an interest emerged in “vernacular architecture” which was basically an attempt to preserve indigenous architectural styles through the construction (or reconstruction) of historic buildings using past materials and methods, while also incorporating modern technologies like track lighting and air conditioning. Some examples of this can be found in Sharjah’s Old Quarter and in Dubai’s Bastakiya district.

While these attempts at preserving the past are both commendable and necessary, it seems to me that Emiratis in general are far more interested in looking toward the future. This is plainly evident in a number of architectural projects under development by Foster + Partners, led by one of the architectural trend setters of the world, Sir Norman Foster himself.

When my little sister, Ann, visited us in March, we set out to see two of Foster’s most recent projects, The Souk at Central Market, near the intersection of Airport Road and the Corniche, and Masdar City, out by the airport. I am by no means a trained architectural critic and so my thoughts on these structures are obviously only those of an interested layman. I suppose my main objective in even writing on these topics is to raise awareness about their existence and thus hopefully encourage others to visit them and form their own opinions.

Okay, on to the Central Market! Basically, this is a modern interpretation of the traditional souk, and it is a welcomed change from the seemingly endless proliferation of malls in Abu Dhabi. Ann and I went there one weekday afternoon shortly before its official opening, so most of the structure had been completed.

My first thought was, “Wow, this is super cool...but what an awful location!” As you can see from the photos, it is surrounded by some of those monstrosities alluded to earlier in the post, a number of which are extremely dilapidated at that! More importantly, no one side of it is exposed to any major public thoroughfare. As a result, its visibility is greatly reduced. I’m sure an argument can be made (and perhaps is made) that this is both an example of the way in which souks seamlessly fit into the communities of which they were a part as well as an attempt at urban renewal. If so, then the best of luck!

The exterior and interior façades are composed of a lattice work design mixed with the occasional mashrabiya that are certainly traditional in concept. This, coupled with the use of synthetic wood-like materials, give the building a warmth that is quite inviting. Once inside, one immediately notices the narrow passageway surrounded by high walls, a technique historically employed to provide shade in outdoor settings, yet we find it being deployed in an indoor one here. It seems then the objective here was to create the ethos of a traditional outdoor souk. For the most part, I think Foster succeeds.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the building is the exquisite natural light which permeates every corner of the souk, also a direct consequence of the structure and design. I don’t think my photos do it justice so you’ll just have to go and see for yourself!

If we had driven there, I might instead be singing the praises of its parking. Yes, that’s right; finally a building in Abu Dhabi has been constructed with parking as more than an afterthought! While the souk itself has three levels of shops and restaurants, I was told that there would be five (count them five) levels of underground parking! The website claims that this is enough to accommodate 1300 cars. Bravo, Sir Foster, bravo.

In addition to ample underground parking, a multi-tiered roof creates a social space where one can grab a bite to eat, enjoy some sheesha, or just be outdoors when the weather complies. The experience there is mixed, however. While it’s well designed and pleasantly landscaped with greenery, the only view is of surrounding buildings, a few of which have paint-chipped facades and balconies crowded with clothes hung out to dry. Of course, the landscaping also serves a functional purpose in providing a sort of natural air-conditioning that minimizes the roof’s (and thus the building’s) temperature. This eye towards “green building” and sustainability is characteristic of Foster's.

To date though, Foster’s most concentrated attempt to merge architecture with sustainability perhaps has been Masdar City. After spending some time exploring the Souk at Central Market, Ann and I decided to make the drive out there to see for ourselves why Masdar City has received so much publicity.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cafe Arabia: bridging East and West

Last night we attended a musical event at a new coffee shop in Abu Dhabi called Cafe Arabia. Actually, it has been open at least six months already but has only now appeared on our radar, likely due to it being ensconced in a villa along 15th Street. It's likely one of those places that will thrive on word of mouth alone, and fortunately we have nothing but praise for the establishment.

The two-story cafe feels much like an Arabian home, warmly decorated, and full of light and life. Colorful artwork and stylish handmade wares are displayed for sale throughout, and the walls are studded with portraits of important regional personalities, providing instant conversation starters. Ample seating in spacious quarters, including plush sofas and family-style dining tables, is configured to accommodate a quiet chat between old friends just as well a lively discussion among new ones. The scene is cozy yet stimulating, especially when accompanied by a slice of spiced cake (ask for "my mom's cake") and mug of sweet Chai Bil Hail.

Cafe Arabia is the brainchild of proprietor Aida Mansour, who has intentionally created an environment conducive to intercultural exploration by way of the arts and, of course, through food and drink. Menu items are inspired by Middle Eastern and European family recipes, and the cafe plays host to numerous community events, such as poetry readings, lectures, and music recitals, encouraging patrons to linger in conversation over mezze and mint lemonade. 

Which brings me back to last night, when British guitarist, Jason Carter, and Emirati oud performer, Faisal Al Saari, allowed their musical traditions to intertwine, playing pieces representing both East and West in perfect harmony, and riffing off each other to demonstrate their individual talents, all before a captivated audience of about 50 gathered around on chairs and floor cushions (aka "poofs") in the cafe's upper room. The evening was also meant to publicize a project headed by Carter, called Jisr al Wadi (literally "bridge over the river," or more loosely "bridging the gap"), which is an attempt to build community between disparate cultures through music, a language which requires no translation. 

Cafe Arabia is currently an anomaly in Abu Dhabi, but will hopefully inspire similar ventures. From the number enthusiastically in attendance last night, most of whom only first heard about the event that morning when it was announced at Saint Andrews, it is obvious that the culture-cafe concept fills a void.

Located at Villa #224/1 between 2nd and 24th - Map thanks to American Women's Network

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A foodie in the UAE: Belgian Beer Cafe

On Friday, Sam and I spent date night at the Belgian Beer Cafe (Intercontinental Hotel, Abu Dhabi), an eatery which has been on our "to-try" list for over a year. We actually attempted it several weeks ago on a lovely, uncharacteristically cool evening, but made a last-minute switch to the Italian place next door because the Belgian place doesn't serve food outside; even in the winter months, what a shame!

On the patio you can enjoy a broad array of Belgian ales on tap and munch on tiny bowls of mixed nuts whilst overlooking the yachts in the marina, but if you require further sustenance you'll have to sit inside, where the view from a window seat is reduced by a brightly-lit hallway and a wheelchair ramp. This weekend was pleasant enough that we opted to imbibe pre-dinner Leffes (blond for me, brunette for Sam) outside before heading inside for the main event.

Oof, apologies for the grainy photos - we cannot wait to purchase a new camera!
View of the marina from the patio

By the time we were seated inside our stomachs were grumbling, so we were thankful for the complimentary brown and white rolls, served to us in a paper sack, apparently a Belgian tradition. The closest I've ever been to Belgium is Paris, so I won't attempt to comment on authenticity in this post, but my impression of the bread was, well, unremarkable. If it hadn't been for the unique presentation I would not have remembered eating it (and this after only one beer).

Speaking of which, we ordered another round of drinks. I switched to Shiraz (the ever-reliable Rosemount Estate) in anticipation of steak frites, and Sam experimented with a beer we had never heard of before, Kwak, which in fact looked a little like a science experiment served in a glass beaker held upright by a wooden scaffold. It was deliciously rich yet refreshing, and a recommended pairing for pork, which the menu has in abundance (Muslims beware!).

Good Christians that we are, we were tickled by all of the pork offerings, as they are rare to find in UAE establishments, even in hotels where they are allowed. (Hotel breakfast buffets nearly always serve veal bacon, a sad, jerky-like substitute which is not worth the effort or calories). Sam, again feeling adventurous, and with a bit of prodding from me, I admit, ordered pork belly and black pudding (a mouthwatering delicacy that I encountered while in France), to be served with grilled potatoes and apple mash. We're not big shellfish eaters anyway, but mussels are out of season, so we were not even tempted to order the most traditional of Belgian meals.

"Steak frites" also wasn't offered on the menu, at least not in the format I was expecting, so I went with a close second - strip steak, grilled medium rare, with a side of fries and a green salad. My steak arrived perfectly cooked and tender, but sadly lacking in flavor. The bowl of green peppercorn sauce served on the side merely drowned what little beef flavor there was, so I left it on the side and stuck with healthy doses from the salt and pepper shakers. I wasn't able to confirm but would be willing to wager the beef was Australian. No offense to Aussies, but their cows are no match for ours! (love the wine, though).

The frites were a centerpiece of the table and of the meal, Sam and I fighting over every last one. They were cut thick and crispy outside with fluffy potato centers; neither too dry nor too greasy and well-seasoned, they didn't even require the side of mayonnaise (yet who are we to buck tradition?).

Sam's meal was rather unfortunate. The pork belly was dried out and even burned in spots, with little flavor to speak of, nothing like the tender morsels I've had in the past. The black pudding, too, did not even slightly resemble the dish I'd had in Paris, either in taste or in form. This looked rather like horse droppings, I'm very sorry to have to report. Easy-going Sam ate pretty much every bite anyway, but he paid for it much later that night with an incident, far less dramatic but still reminiscent of our recent trip to Beirut. We suspect there was something less than fresh about his meal.

Even accounting for the shoddy camera work, can you say unappetizing?

We were having a fun date though and weren't ready to leave, so we ordered a chocolate mousse to share. My expectations weren't very high, but I was pleasantly surprised with the dessert. It was understated and tasted as it should, with just the right amount of cream to warrant the name mousse while retaining a clean  Belgian chocolate flavor.

Overall, our impression was mixed. We're glad to have satisfied our curiosity, but given the high prices and questionable pork dish, as well as the oddly-mixed atmosphere (80's pop music piped through the restaurant completely clashed with the wood paneling and brass fixtures that were desperately crying for whimsical accordion), the Belgian Beer Cafe has been permanently crossed off our list. Unless they manage to find a way to serve fries to beer-drinkers on the patio - now that would be worth a return trip!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

One Gulf to another

So the big news...

Drum roll please....

Sam and I are moving back to the States! Two months from today, actually. Destination? Tallahassee, Florida. Located on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Mexico (about 20 miles inland), Tallahassee is the state capital and home to two major universities, which brings me to the reason we are moving: Sam has been accepted into a doctoral program in Islamic Studies at Florida State University, which has been the long-term plan and is finally happening!

Those of you who knew us before we were bloggers likely know this news already, and (hopefully) view it as a good thing because it means we'll soon be able to tell you our stories in person, and maybe even engage in a two-way conversation (imagine that!). But it seems that the majority of you are people whom we've never met face to face. In the past week alone we've had visits from 23 countries, spanning 5 continents! (Not that we're stalking you; StatCounter just happens to keep this data.) And we have come to know more about our readers because many of you have left comments, sent emails asking for expat or travel advice, or even re-posted our entries on your own blogs.

In a place where I often felt isolated, whether because I had a hard time finding like-minded individuals or because it was simply too hot to venture outdoors, these interactions have helped me feel connected to a larger community. And I have hesitated making this announcement (we've known since January), not because you're going to miss this blog so terribly, but because I'm going to miss you!

But I suppose if we're moving away from Abu Dhabi we can't exactly be "Finding" it anymore, and sooner or later this blog has to end. Even if I start a new one, which I probably will because it's become a way of life for me (Sam can go either way, but I pretty much think in blog now), the content that drew most readers to Finding Abu Dhabi, via Google or other means, is definitely going to change, and that means many will stop being interested. It's to be expected, but kind of hard not to feel sad about, even as I look forward to new possibilities.

For those of you who plan to stick with us until the bittersweet end, we plan to keep posting as long as there are relevant topics, but we foresee things winding down by early fall. And then what? Sam will be busy with school and pursuing his dream, and I will hopefully be starting a new job before too long. But I'll also be looking for something new to write about. Any ideas??

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beirut or bust! (pt. II)

Yesterday's post was the one I wanted to write about Beirut, and all of it was true, but it wasn't the whole story. As we learned on our trip to Oxford last month, sometimes travel doesn't go as planned, and as I learned in Beirut, sometimes it just disappoints.

Day 1 was a feast for the senses. We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and immediately went walking in our neighborhood and along the Corniche. We ended up at the Manara Palace Cafe, where we spent the remainder of the evening eating hummus and kibba, drinking mint tea and smoking narghile, listening to waves pound intensely on the rocks, soaking in the cool, salty air, and watching the sunset. If this day was any indication, the trip was going swimmingly.

But Day 2, Sam's birthday, we awoke at 5 am to a loud clashing. Once I realized in my groggy haze that it was not the call to prayer, nor was it an air raid, but ordinary thunder, I quickly fell back asleep. But when we went down for breakfast later that morning, we learned that a storm system had hunkered down right above us, and that we should expect heavy rain all day long. This dampened our plans but not our spirits. We bought an umbrella and went to town, determined to see as much as possible.

Sam in front of the Martyr's Statue in downtown Beirut, captured during a brief break from the rain

It was an odd-feeling day, though, as if the city had been drained of energy. We found the streets nearly deserted, our map inadequate, and most establishments closed, and after a lot of wandering around didn't feel like we had seen much of anything. We redeemed the day somewhat with dinner at a cozy little university pub called Ferdinand, tucked away on Ghandi Street in Hamra, followed by a spontaneous stop in Gustav, a locally owned bakery. Learning it was Sam's birthday and our first time in Beirut, the owners/bakers gave us free black forest cake, complete with birthday candle for Sam (as pictured in part I).

And then there was Day 3. It started inauspiciously enough with a quick Continental breakfast at our hotel followed by a bargaining session with several taxi drivers for a ride to Byblos.

Quick aside: we discovered a whole new kind of driving experience in Beirut. As in Cairo and Kathmandu, lane divisions and traffic lights are merely suggestions, and car horns are a sort of local language; but unlike any other city we've been to yet, there are rules about cars-for-hire that are unwritten but very important:

First, if you say the word "taxi" to a driver, you imply that you want a solo ride to a destination and are willing to pay double, maybe triple, for it. If you instead use the word "service", it means the driver is free to pick up additional passengers along the way, possibly slowing you down but allowing you to pay much less. Second, you must bargain before getting in the car (there are no meters) or you may pay through the nose or die trying not to. And lastly, if you look like a tourist, you will automatically be charged way more than a local for the same ride, no matter how hard you bargain. Locals will advise you not to spend more than 7000 Lebanese Pounds for a ride across town (a bit under $5), but we found this impossible to negotiate while keeping our dignity. We were literally kicked out of one cab and jumped out of a couple others!

We finally found our driver, who turned out to be a delightful older gentleman who was completely enamored with his country and eager to show us as much as possible. He talked us into visiting Jeita on the way to Byblos, saying we had plenty of time and that it was a "very important" site for us to see (for an extra fee, of course). But we were happy for the chance to experience at least the foothills of the Lebanese mountains, and found the Grotto beautiful, although not terribly different from the Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take photographs so you'll have to imagine it (or go to their website).

Next, the driver dropped us off in Byblos, and we immediately went in search of lunch. My stomach was feeling a little uneasy, so I figured a good meal would get me back on track. We went to highly-recommended Locanda a la Granda, an Italian-influenced Lebanese restaurant, and ate on a lovely terrace overlooking the Crusader castle to our left and the Mediterranean to our right.

We started with sweet crab cakes and a huge salad, which was a creative variation of the traditional fattoush (bread salad), and finished with tagliatelle pasta with a roquefort, honey, and walnut sauce.

A few bites into our main course my stomach really began hurting. And despite two visits to the bathroom over the next hour the pain only intensified. I tried to ignore it, and agreed to go with Sam to explore the Crusader castle and Roman ruins, but just as we entered the outer walls a wave of nausea washed over me.

Walking up the gently-sloping path to the castle, I'm looking a bit sluggish.

Not sure what to do, as we were far from any indoor plumbing, I just sat down. Sam stood nearby, talking me through a new game plan. After a few minutes I decided to risk the journey back to the restaurant where we ate lunch so I could wait out whatever this was inside its facilities. The restroom there was private and tastefully decorated, and if you're going to be kneeling in front of a toilet, it makes it less awful if the floor is clean. [I'm sure the management would have appreciated this strategy, but I really didn't care at this point.]

Sam led me by the arm at a snail's pace back toward the entrance of the castle, but after twenty yards or so I suddenly found myself retching the entire contents of my stomach, which was mostly fattoush, into the most strategically-placed trashcan I've ever encountered. I honestly think it appeared out of thin air! Also, for whatever reason, even though it was a Saturday during tourist season, there was no one around, praise be to God.

Oh, except for Sam, my dear husband, who faithfully held my sweater with one hand and captured my shining moment with the other. Isn't he sweet?

After composing myself (which Sam also documented) and leaving the scene of the crime, I spent the next two hours sitting on a secluded rock outside, in a most picturesque setting, deciding whether there would be a repeat performance.

Finally, we determined I was far enough out of the woods to make the drive back to Beirut. No bargaining this time; we took the first offer we found. Once again, if you're looking for a silver lining, God sent us a devil of a driver, a blessing because he shaved 30 minutes off our 90-minute trip with his brazenness. He didn't say a word the whole time, and we didn't mention my ailment, but he drove as if he knew I might be sick in his car.

After a fitful night's sleep, Day 4 consisted of me holding my stomach and groaning, flipping repeatedly through 200 mostly non-English, mostly sports channels on satellite TV (though catching portions of Annie Hall, Jerry McGuire dubbed in French, and The Colbert Report), writing postcards, dozing in and out, trying to eat a cracker, and promptly throwing it up. I sent Sam out to enjoy our remaining hours (it was a gorgeous day, and his birthday trip after all), and he came back to collect me for our late afternoon flight. By takeoff I was on the mend, and slept the entire way home (another blessing, as I was not looking forward to that flight).

The only pic we got together - in the terminal waiting for our flight back to Abu Dhabi

I'm still not sure what it was. Food poisoning or water parasites seem unlikely, as Sam and I had eaten all the same foods and drank only bottled water, so I guess it was a 24-hour bug. Who knows? I may even have gotten it had we stayed home in Abu Dhabi this weekend. Regardless, it was probably inevitable after a dozen trips that one of us would have a vomiting story, so I suppose I won't hold it against Beirut. I may even give it another shot some day. However, I'm not eating fattoush again anytime soon.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beirut or bust! (pt. I)

Beirut has been at the top of our list of cities to visit while living in the Middle East, especially for Sam, as it has just about everything a person interested in history, religion, architecture, urbanism, food and pop culture could ever want. We were all set to go last November, with flights and hotel booked, but because of a sudden spike in political instability at that time we switched at the last minute to Istanbul; not a bad trade, but one that left us all the more determined to see Beirut.

Despite all the turmoil in surrounding areas, Beirut has been calm lately, so this past weekend for Sam's birthday, we finally touched down on Lebanese soil. It was a quick, four-day trip, but we managed to tour American University of Beirut (AUB) and the surrounding district of Hamra, stroll the waterfront a couple of times, visit the major landmarks of the downtown area, and wander aimlessly through the narrow, Parisian-style streets of Gemmayzeh, popping into cafes, restaurants and pubs at every opportunity.

We also made it outside the city to the mountain region of Jeita, visiting the much-acclaimed Grotto (caverns), in the running to become one of the new seven wonders of the world. And we ventured even further north to the coastal town of Byblos (known to Arabs as Jbail), an ancient city dating back as early as 7000 BC, which has been inhabited and influenced by pretty much every major empire (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, etc, etc). Once a major port of the Mediterranean Sea, it is now a sleepy fishing village by day and trendy jet-setter destination by night, not to mention an archaeologist's dream.

Our photos are inadequate (many thanks to our temporary cheapo replacement camera), but hopefully will give you a glimpse of the raw beauty we found. Beirut is war-torn and beleaguered, but is a place determined to rebuild. Amidst rubble and shell-shocked reminders of the Lebanese Civil War are numerous development projects, including designer shopping centers, car dealerships and condominiums. 

And this will seem stereotypical, but literally, day or night, in cafes and parking lots, we spotted groups of locals spontaneously dancing to traditional ditties that seemed to be pumped into the atmosphere wherever we went. So many were eager to speak with us about their food and culture, their political views, or simply to practice their English. Despite a history marked by terror and tragedy, the Lebanese are full of life and looking for ways of expressing it.

AUB's campus - Spanish-mission style, built on rolling hills filled with lush cedars and flowering trees, all overlooking the Mediterranean, simply stunning!--

 Entire neighborhoods being renovated.--

Roman ruins in the middle of downtown.--

In Gemmayzeh, quaint streets lined with colorful old buildings,-- 

punctuated by bombed-out homes and peeling facades.--

A 12th-century Crusader castle, in Byblos,--

with its views of the village and ancient ruins, not to mention the Mediterranean.--

Looking back toward Beirut,--

where we and the fishermen enjoyed the Corniche by day--

and by night.--

Not a bad way to spend a birthday!--