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.