Friday, December 2, 2011

Fujairah for Diving and Hiking

A couple of weeks ago we made the drive from Abu Dhabi to Al Bidiya in Fujairah two weekends in a row. We went once, and loved the trip so much, we knew we had to go again before the weather got too cool for swimming. What a wonderful place! It reminds me of other laid-back coastal areas we've visited. What is it about living close to the ocean that just changes the way people are?

We stayed in a perfect little place- a scuba shop with a guest house. Scuba 2000 is locally-owned, but run by a lovely Philipino lady named Vangie and the skipper, Romy. There are three rooms, but we were the only overnighters both weekends, which meant that we had the beach entirely to ourselves each evening. The beach is not your everyday bit of sand and waves, but a fascinating collection of rocks, shells, and tidal pools. Abby spent hours just observing the life in those pools, and Mark and I watched some peaceful, vivid sunsets while she played. Idyllic.

During the days, Mark and Abby went diving with Romy and various others who showed up for a day trip. They reported that the diving was great, not too crowded, but full of sea life and excellent visibility. I don't do all that well on boats, so I opted to explore the area instead.

I first visited the oldest mosque in the UAE, Al Bidiya Mosque. It was small and well-situated, on a hill overlooking the sea. I didn't mind at all being there by myself. I said hi to the other visitors, but was free to look around and take pictures as I liked. After looking at the mosque and two towers, I climbed the larger hill next to them. I got a gorgeous view of the valley and the village situated between the mountains and the ocean. Then I drove back to the dive shop and met Mark and Abby coming off the boat. We had a wonderful lunch cooked by Vangie, and spent the evening playing on the beach and eating out in town.



This is the trail- right over the edge!
My next exploration took me to Wadi Wurrayah, a canyon just a few minutes away from Al Bidiya. I had wanted to hike with a group, but the trip was expensive and there were no others signed up for the weekend, so the cost would be even higher. We had bought a map on our way to Fujairah, and the wadi was clearly marked, so I decided to just set out on my own. What freedom!!

I drove over some small mountains and into a national park. The signage was very helpful. Eventually, the pavement ended- in a rocky area that was buzzing with flies because of the horrendous amount of garbage strewn around. The previous weekend had been a big holiday, and apparently the many picnickers didn't clean up after themselves. My car was the only one around. I locked up and headed over to the trail that just went right over the edge of the cliff into the canyon.

It turned out the trail continued in a way, steep and twisty. For some of it I sat on my bottom and slid a bit, trying not to imagine how long I would lie there if I fell and broke my leg. The bottom was very rocky, a dry river bed. I followed it just a few hundred feet to the oasis: a waterfall and pool. There were some Emiratis, two women and a man, who had driven in with their 4x4 along the wadi's bottom. They were amazed when a lone woman, a foreigner, just walked up. "Where did you come from?" They couldn't believe I would hike down from the top of the canyon on my own. We chatted while I walked around on the rocks and put my feet in the cool water. The place was only spoiled by the graffiti thick on the rocks near the pool.
The family climbing down the canyon.

After I had enjoyed the oasis, I faced the climb back up the cliff. To my surprise, there was a family coming down. A bunch of kids of various ages, their mom and dad, and a grandmother and grandfather. It really bolstered my conidence to see them making the climb, the women wearing their abayas! Most of the way up was fine, using my hands and feet, but on a bit near the top I was struggling to pull myself up. Some young Emiratis just happened to be on their way down, and one of them offered me a hand up. Much appreciated. They were also surprised to see a foreign woman alone, and we talked for a few minutes about the similarities between Texas and Fujairah. Then I headed back to the dive shop again.

It was so good to get out into the countryside. We loved the people, the scenery, just everything about the trip. Now it's too cold for enjoying the beach, but we'll head back as soon as we can!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

At KG - UAE National Day

Abby went with me to my school's National Day celebration.
We are in the midst of celebrating our second National Day in the UAE, and it's quite a party! The United Arab Emirates has only been a country for 40 years as of today. You can see the excitement and effort that has gone into the celebration preparations. It's quite a job to make the many families, tribes, and ethnic groups here feel like a unified group. That has been the chant- one people, one nation- that the kids are being taught at school. I find it so interesting. It makes me wonder how similar the efforts were in the United States when it was only 40 years old, and people who had immigrated from many different countries and had allegiance to the states they lived in were becoming one people.

We've been celebrating for more than a week at school. It started with special "corners" (centers) that were decorated for each of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. The children spent time in each corner, learning about the emirate and making a craft related to it. They also practiced marching into the gym to form a UAE flag with their red, green, black and white shirts on. Also, several groups of students practiced for short presentations. On Tuesday, the big party was held in the gym. Mothers were invited and attended in huge numbers, along with their other children, both younger and older siblings of our students.

The decorations were almost overwhelming. Strings of flags, in the national colors, were everywhere, as were pictures of the current sheikh, his father (Sheikh Zayed, the father of the country), and the brother of the current sheikh, who is the crown prince. The students came in a myriad of outfits, from traditional Emirati dress, to the latest western fashion, to military outfits for the boys. I loved the young girls in their embroidered jellabiyas with gold in their hair, on their ears, and around their necks. The western dresses were frilly chiffon and satin in every color, and there were also dresses made just for the day in the national colors. Their mothers were all in their abayas, but the decoration on the abayas signaled the festivity of the occasion. They sparkled in many colors on the sleeves, around the hem, and on the edges of the shaylas. I had a jellabiya made for the party, and Abby wore a tunic and leggings in red and black. She had ribbons of red, black, green, and white in her hair.

During the show, food was available for sale in the hall. We could buy khoshary, an Egyptian macaroni and rice with a spicy red sauce on it, or UAE-style lasagna, made with random pasta instead of just flat lasagna noodles, or balaleet, noodles with egg flavored with cardamom and a bit sweet. There were also french fries, chips, and oreos.

The show went on for most of the day, from 9:30 until 12:30. The kids who were not chosen to be in the presentations had a really hard time sitting through it, and much of the time the gym was a scene of chaos, with children moving about at will or standing on chairs to see or mothers looking for their kids. Some of the shows caught the students' attention, especially the "wedding scene," a presentation about Emirati wedding traditions, complete with small male guests twirling rifles with mustaches painted on their faces and small female guests in elaborate dresses. At the end, everyone ended up dancing. It was good fun, as disorganized as it was.

I love being here for the outpouring of patriotism and goodwill on National Day. Happy birthday, UAE!


Friday, October 14, 2011

Kitchen Concerns

We are finally feeling comfortable in our new place. We have all the furniture we need, we have the bathrooms outfitted with linens and cleaning supplies, and we have TV and internet. But the best news of all is- the refrigerator is no longer in the living room!

We got our refrigerator free from a family in the homeschool group. They were replacing their old fridge, and donated it to us at the end of last year. Then it sat on the front porch of another friend all summer until we moved in to the villa. We hired a truck and a driver to move the appliances, and it was all very easy, until we started to bring the refrigerator into the kitchen. Then we found out that because the kitchen door doesn't open all the way, the fridge wouldn't go through. No problem, right? Just take the door off the hinges. Except that a couple of the screws were stripped and refused to budge. So the refrigerator got plugged into the living room/dining room outlet, which is not all that inconvenient if you want more juice during the middle of dinner.

It took a little while, but Mark eventually hammered the screws out of the door, and now the refrigerator sits proudly in the kitchen. Next came the saga of the stove.

We bought a gas stove ("cooker" as it's called here). We had no problem getting it into the kitchen: the door is still sitting on the floor, off its hinges. Gas here is not piped into the villas. Instead, the truck with propane canisters rolls through the neighborhood almost daily, with one of the workers banging a wrench against the truck, alerting the residents that they can run out and exchange their empty gas canisters for full ones. So Mark bought a length of hose to run from the back of the stove, through the hole we found drilled in the metal door frame of the kitchen's sliding glass door, and out to the porch, where it connects to a regulator and the gas canister. We cooked for the first time on the new stove this week.

Our last task will be to get the washer and dryer hooked up. They won't go in the kitchen, but out on the porch. The surge protector/extension cord, however, is plugged in to the outlet in the kitchen, then through the other hole in the door frame, then out to the appliances. I guess we'll need to warp the surge protector in plastic in the unlikely event that it rains. Mark had to cut the plug off of the extension cord to thread it through the hole, then re-attach it. He had a hard time finding some sort of wire caps that he needed, and finally had to go to a contractor's store. Apparently the do-it-yourself element is lacking here in Abu Dhabi. Not that we just looked one up on the internet and drove over- no, we were buying curtains and noticed that the area had some general contractors' storefronts. After trying three or four, we finally hit on one that was open. Then we lucked out because a customer in the store spoke both English and Arabic and translated Mark's needs. The only thing we still need before we can wash clothes is an adapter for the washer's water hose. It's too big for the spigot. Don't know where we'll find that.



Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Year Later

What a difference a year makes! It's so hard to believe that last year at this time I had just moved out of the Aloft Hotel and was facing that nightmare class of second-grade boys on a daily basis. I hadn't tried driving in Abu Dhabi, and I didn't have any idea of how to get anywhere, even to the Carrefour on airport road, except by taxi. I think at this time last year, we had yet to find a good place for shawarmas!

Now, we are regulars at Automatic Cafe, where the best shawarmas and fried kibbe can be found. I have my driver's license, my Emirates ID, and I'm about to be counted in the census. I give other people directions to places all over the city and suburbs. Best of all, I'm enjoying my job most days, learning new things daily, figuring out my new responsibilities, and puzzling out challenging situations. I have tons of sympathy for the teachers who are new to ADEC this year. And my best piece of advice: give it a year. It gets better.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Villa

So when we first knew we were coming to Abu Dhabi, I had this vision of all the teachers being housed in villas next door to each other. I had no idea housing was so expensive! All last year, I'd look longingly at those high-walled, multi-storied buildings, then head back to our apartment building in the Tourist Club. I was determined to get us into a place with some outdoor space and parking.

We used an agent from Silver Lake Property Management. We'd hoped to rent directly from a landlord and skip the agent fee, but we couldn't find what we wanted on our own. Silver Lake had several villas advertised in our price range, so we were really excited. Then we met our agent, Joseph, and found out that the villas we could afford were all sublets, and so not allowed for our contracts. What a letdown. We almost gave up, but instead kept asking Joseph, "Do you have anything a little further out of the city?" He finally took us to the villa we are moving into now. It meets every dream I had about living here, except for a pool. And what a connection we've made with our well-connected landlord!

He's in the government, apparently, and also owns several businesses. When he says, "Jump," people do. He got our contract approved in one day and our electricity connected the next day. He is helping us get our stuff moved into the villa, and already arranged a cleaner to come daily, whom we will pay once a month. He is appalled that we would pay full price for anything, and insisted on ordering our bedroom furniture himself, so we are paying half price. Wow. Today, I mentioned that one of the outlets wasn't working, and he went to his car and brought me one in a package that says it is "24 carat gold plated". And I thought all the outlets were just a pretty, shiny, gold color!

We hope to be moved in by the end of next week. Anyone want to come visit?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Back To Abu Dhabi


We got back to Abu Dhabi, after a long, boring day of travel, on September 1. The only exciting thing about our flight here was that we got to fly right past the Eiffel Tower when we stopped over at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris. We didn’t have a real layover there, though. We got off of one flight and hurried to the next, without even time to shop in the airport souvenir shops! We were really happy to get on our Etihad flight- what luxury after American from DFW to Paris. We didn’t learn that our luggage had not even made it to France until we arrived in AD. It was delivered to our apartment safely the next day.

It kinda feels good to be “home.” We’ve eaten at our favorite restaurants, Automatic Cafeteria for Lebanese food and Asian Garden for Thai and Chinese. At Automatic, we were welcomed back with smiles and handshakes, and our favorite waiter took good care of us, even bringing us complimentary falafel. We ate there almost once a week last year. We also spent an afternoon at Le Meridien, the resort that has an agreement with our apartment to allow us to use their facilities gratis. We packed a lunch to eat by the (chilled) pool, then swam and played on the beach. Of course, we had to go to LuLu’s to do our big restocking grocery trip. I’m glad to have my Masafi (flavored water) again. 

On September 4, I went to the Education Zone to pick up notification of my transfer to a new school. At the end of last year, I applied to be a Head of Faculty (HoF), and I was selected for the position. The HoF is assigned to one school to be a resource person for the teachers and administrators, and a liaison between them. It’s such a different job than teaching, but I’m excited to get under way with it. My new school is called Al Eethaar Kindergarten, and it is located about 40 minutes from my apartment south of the airport in a suburb called Al Shawamekh.

Places here are very hard to find because there are no addresses. Sometimes, there are no street signs. I drove around for about two hours on Sunday looking for my school. And this was after studying a map on which the location of the school was clearly marked! I finally found it at about 1:15, and I met my principal at the door with her keys, about to leave. She was very understanding, and I believe we are on our way to a great working relationship. 

Over the course of my first week back, I have met the licensed teachers (LTs) for the English program. There are eight so far, with one more on the list that has not yet shown up. Two are returning from last year. The remaining six are new, with varying degrees of kinder experience. All of them are excited to be here and eager to do their best. I also have six teachers from a school that is still under construction with me. I have been trying to keep them busy helping out. All of this has been without one tiny bit of direction from ADEC. I listen to my principal about her priorities, and then get busy with the teachers. I just hope we’re going in the right direction on all the details.

Mark, Abby and I have been very preoccupied with the task of finding a new place. We were considering a move to the suburbs, hoping to find space for our dog and relief from traffic. However, after much discussion, we decided we didn’t want to have to drive to the city for everything. So we hired an agent to help us find a place closer to the city but still with some outdoor space. We think we’ve found it. It’s a villa owned by an Emirati man. It has two stories, with a living room, half bath, and kitchen on the ground floor, and three bedrooms and two baths on the second floor. It’s very traditional, with a high wall around the outside and a locking gate. It has tile floors throughout, elaborate chandeliers, gold-trimmed crown molding, and a beautiful curved staircase. We love the character! Just like something on House Hunters International! It has a small garden in front, and the landlord has told us it is fine to use it for our dog to play in. It’s older than the places in the suburbs, but it has a great location, just a block away from several bus lines and two blocks from the new high-rise buildings ADEC bought to house all the new teachers. If all the paperwork is approved, we will move in before the end of the month.

Another long post. I keep telling myself I don’t have to write a book every time I start to blog. Maybe I will try shorter and more frequent posts. From the three of us, thanks for staying in touch!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Typical School Day

It’s almost May! I can’t believe how quickly April flashed by. We are seriously counting down the days until our return home for the summer. As of right now, we haven’t booked tickets because we were hoping the school calendar would be shortened. The word is, most students will stop attending school after mid-June. However, our work year officially ends July 13. So, a month with no kids? How much planning and preparation can you do? On asking for clarification, teachers have been told July 13 remains the last work day for us. I guess it’s time to stop hoping and just buy the tickets.
I realized I’ve blogged about vacations a lot recently, and some people might be interested in just how a kindergarten in the UAE runs. I have to say up front that there are major differences at every school. I will try to give a picture of my typical school day, but it will not necessarily apply to any other school here!
I wake up at 5:00 AM these days because I’m getting a ride to school with my head of faculty, who lives down the street. For a while there, I was riding the city bus, which left my block at 5:50 and arrived in Al Rahba at 7:00, dropping me a mile from the school. I would then start walking towards the school and was usually picked up by a co-worker with a car about halfway. Thank goodness I have a ride now! I leave Abu Dhabi Plaza at 6:20, catch the #7 Tourist Club bus by 6:26, and get to Al Manzel Apartments by 6:35. Then Angela meets me in the lobby and we head out for the 30 minute drive to Al Ebtehal Kindergarten.
After signing in and grabbing my props for my KG1 lesson, I go to the gym, which is the central room at my school. The students have arrived by car and buses, and are lining up in the gym by class with their teachers for what is called taboor, which means “line” but is a morning assembly. They recite from the Quran, sing a song, say the UAE pledge, sing the national anthem, and then do some exercises, all led by the gym teacher. Some days, a class will do a special presentation about whatever they have been learning, but most days, we are dismissed by 8:00 to start class.
The KG2 teachers teach Arabic language and Islamic Studies from 8:00 to about 9:00, so the English staff visit KG1 classrooms during that time for an English lesson. KG1 students are three years old turning four during the year, so the teaching is really basic. We are working right now on colors, counting to 20, recognizing numbers, recognizing their names in English, and shapes, just to name a few objectives. I start off with circle time songs and greeting each child. Then I usually have a book or learning focus, then some kind of response time for the kids. It only goes well when the Arabic teacher sits with us for the lesson. The kids just don’t behave without “their” teacher forcing the issue, no matter how fun my lesson might be. So every time she has other things she feels she must do during the English lesson, the kids learn “sit down, please” and “No, no hitting!” instead of whatever lesson I had planned! Next year, we will have English teachers assigned to the KG1 classes, so they will not be mere visitors. I think that will work much better.
KG2 students are four turning five during the year, which is Pre-K in the US. I have to keep that in mind when planning and assessing, especially. The 24 kids I share with my Arabic co-teacher are adorable most of the time. There are a few more boys than girls, and they are really active, but they love learning and games just like kids anywhere. I teach a very short literacy lesson, then have the kids practice writing before snack time. After snack, they usually go to a rotation class: art, music, sports, or library. We have a short time for literacy small groups, and then the kids have a 15 minute recess. They can buy snacks in the gym during recess, but there’s not much else for them to do. It’s a bit more physical than I’ve ever been used to. Maybe because the kids are in an enclosed space, instead of on a playground. It’s too hot here, and our school doesn’t even have a playground! After recess, we come back to class for a short numeracy lesson and small groups/centers. It’s time to clean up at 12:00, and we’re out to buses at 12:15. Some days we go to the computer lab for part of the center time, and the kids absolutely love starfall.com. It’s pretty cute to hear them try to sing along with the dancing bear doing “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” on the computer. The day goes by fast no matter what we’re doing.
The only time the day ever slows down (and time just seems to telescope out) is when my co-teacher leaves the room for an extended period. We are supposed to work together, even during the English lesson, but she is often called away to translate, as she is quite fluent in English. Also, on occasion, “tea time” just somehow overlaps the English lesson, and I manage the kids on my own. I can do it, but I find I have to use plenty of Arabic to keep control. When that happens, I don’t feel bad about it, because my co-teacher would be using Arabic if she were in class. I just make sure to say everything twice, using both languages.
The English staff do most of the planning because we are responsible for teaching and assessing English and math. We have lots of the same resources you’d find in the US, with notable exceptions. Such as a well-stocked library and unifix cubes. The government is said to be in the process of providing better resources, and we have seen some trickle in this year. We have a computer lab with 12 computer stations and two computers in each classroom, but all of the teachers would like to have smartboards as well. Maybe next year!
We have planning time or professional development meetings after school, and are free to go at 1:45. The drive home takes about 40 minutes, so I’m often home by 2:30. What a luxury! I do enjoy my job, every day. That’s the typical school day. I’m sure I’ve left out important information that others would like to know. Please ask me and I’ll try to fill in the blanks.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rainy Days in Thailand

Not that I'm complaining. After seven months of no rain here in the desert (okay, it drizzled for a few hours one day in January), we were happy to see rain. For every single day of our stay in Thailand. During what was supposed to be the hot, dry season, of course. It was the wettest March in 140 years, according to our guide, in fact. But at least we were safe, and didn't deal with flooding the way some of the people in other areas of Thailand did. And, hey, we spent our spring break in Asia. That's pretty cool!


We opted to stay the first three nights in Patong Beach, on the island of Phuket. There is an international airport on the island, so we were able to fly straight there on Thursday night/ Friday morning with a short layover in Hong Kong. Patong Beach was just as I imagined Thailand would be, a tropical beach town with twisty, crowded streets full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. It reminded me a bit of Key West, only a tad more naughty. There were Thai massage shops on every street, and all of the souvenirs we saw were really inexpensive. We had to stop ourselves from buying everything we liked, because we'd convert from Thai baht to dollars (30 to one) and say, "Wow, this is only three bucks!" It does tend to add up. Plus, we only brought three backpacks and one carry-on suitcase. We didn't have room for any extra stuff.

We stayed at a nice place called R Mar Resort. The first day we just explored the area around the hotel. On the second day, Mark and Abby went diving with South Siam Divers, and I had a pedicure on the beach.  It was really rainy, and I enjoyed sitting at a corner cafĂ© with my book, having lunch and watching the rain. I also met a couple from Australia who had once owned a dive shop. We had a great chat while waiting for the rain to let up. That night we went to Phuket Fantasea, a fictionalized history of the area that featured traditional dances, costumes, and elephants. It was so colorful, with combinations of colors I’d never choose- pink with orange, and yellow with turquoise. We enjoyed the show. On our third day, we were picked up early for a drive to Phang Nga, an area north of Phuket. There, we boarded a boat called SeaCanoe4U and headed out towards the islands in the bay.  We stopped at two islands for a guided canoe trip through small caves to interior lagoons. It was luxurious to let our guide, Woody, paddle us around while we took pictures of the untouched rainforests. After lunch back on the big boat, we went to James Bond Island, where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed in 1974. I loved hiking the steep trail over a ridge with gorgeous views. On the other side of the island there were shallow caves, and Abby explored them happily.  We had one last stop for a swim on a secluded beach, then we went back to the dock. What a fun trip!

The following day, we left Phuket and travelled to Khao Sok, a national park in the rainforest. On the drive, we passed by rivers that were reaching flood stage. Thankfully, our way was clear. Our first two nights in Khao Sok were at the Nature Resort, where we stayed in a treehouse. It was really built in a tree, and the massive trunk in the center of our room was dripping wet, and played host to a few centipedes. At least the beds came with mosquito nets, so I didn’t have to worry about centipedes in the bed! The bathroom was paved with river rocks and stepping stones, and the shower was made like a waterfall in the corner. It was quite nerve-wracking going up the wet, steep steps carrying all of our luggage and umbrellas.  Abby and Mark went tubing on the river the first afternoon, but I opted for a Thai massage because the rain made me too cold to get in the water. The Thai massage was different- much more joint manipulation and stretching than I expect from a massage. Still, it was quite relaxing. The best part of the day, however, was mealtime. The food was amazing: Thai dishes and rice with fresh ingredients. It was simply some of the best food I have ever eaten. The setting was wonderful, too. In the evening, frogs and geckoes were gathered on the patio dining area, and bats swooped over our heads while we ate. On the second day, we rode elephants in the rain. I loved being up so high while the elephant waded through a swollen river like it was nothing. And I was amazed at the small trails the elephants followed- maybe a foot wide. Apparently, they move their feet very close together, almost stepping in exactly the same space with each foot in turn. We happened to be on that tour with a family from Australia. Talking with them, I thought their accents sounded familiar. When I asked where they were from originally, they said Pearland, Texas! Small world.
    Our next stop was Chieow Laan Lake, which we reached by van and longtail boat the next morning. Our accommodation on the lake was a floating hotel. The rooms were all separate rafthouses, linked by floating walkways to the floating dining area. Abby loved the fact  that you could step out of the room and jump right into the water. The lake was man-made, and the area used to be mountainous. Now, the mountain tops protrude from the water, making hundreds of small forested islands.  We took a hike through the ainforest on one island, and our guide, Dang, poked in spider and scorpion holes so we could see some of the local residents. We took a bamboo raft to another island and explored Coral Cave, a short cave system in pristine condition.  We also motored around the lake in the longtail boat (which is an open boat with a car motor on the end attached to a long pole with a propeller) looking for wildlife. Because of the rain, we didn’t spot a whole lot. We saw macaques foraging and a few eagles, and we heard gibbons all around us. Their cry sounds like someone playing the saw. Unfortunately, we never got to see them.
We spent our last day in Thailand back in Phuket, where we did some serious souvenir shopping. The next morning, we headed to Hong Kong. Since we had a seven hour layover, we were able to leave the airport and look around. We opted to go to Kowloon, the shopping district, which we reached by train and ferry in about 45 minutes. It was crowded and brightly-lit. We had dinner at an Asian fast-food place that was excellent.  Abby had said she didn’t like Chinese food, but she didn’t count on the barbecued pork! After dinner, we enjoyed the view of downtown Hong Kong from a boardwalk, then retraced our steps to the airport. Our flight left at 12:30 AM, and we got back to Dubai at 6:00 AM. Then just a one and a half hour bus ride back to Abu Dhabi, and we were home.
I guess we are practiced international travelers now. I felt proud of us for packing lightly and exploring new places that were pretty adventurous. One of the first things Mark and I did on the day after our return was to start thinking about where we will go next. UK, here we come!







Friday, March 4, 2011

Saturday

Today will be an at-home day, the kind of day that starts with me sipping coffee in my pajamas while I play on the internet. Abby is watching The Sound of Music, and Mark is still asleep. I love at-home days. It's Saturday, which is like Sunday here, the last day of the weekend. Today it's hazy outside and cool. Unlike in Texas, the haze isn't just fog or pollution. It's a dense desert dust blowing in the wind.

We've been in Abu Dhabi now for six months. It feels very normal to be here now, no different than being settled in Florida, far away from family and old friends. We have an amazingly convenient life here. We pay two bills, the internet and our credit card. We have no car, so we take the bus or walk wherever we need to go. Just downstairs, there are two grocery/department stores that usually have anything we might need. There is a video rental store a few steps away, as well as a produce stand. The best tandoori bread we've ever tasted is made just down the street. It's only one dirham per round, and baked when you order it.

Now that I've changed schools, my workday is over by 1:45, and I get home by about 2:30. Abby and Mark have usually finished school lessons by then, so we have long afternoons and evenings together. Some days we go to the park for Abby to ride her bike or skateboard. On Mondays, we head to the homeschool association play group in the park across the street from the Corniche. We sit for about three hours, talking with the other parents while the kids play. Some days we head to the mall (we have about four to choose from on the bus routes) and hang out. It's a lifestyle that allows for plenty of down time and family togetherness.

We are thinking alot about our living arrangements for next year. We have the option to stay here, in the hotel apartment that is fully furnished and has housekeeping service. It's in the middle of the city, with high rise buildings, traffic noise, every kind of store imaginable, and crowds of people at all times of day and night. But we're leaning towards a move to the suburbs. It would be closer to my school, in an aparment complex populated with mostly expats. It has a pool, small private gardens, spacious rooms, and pets are allowed. It would feel very much like being at home, especially if we bring our dog over. We'd have to get a car and drive to the grocery store or the mall. We would have to buy furniture, kitchen equipment, linens, and every other kind of thing we just got finished selling in a series of garage sales before we left the US. I'm not sure that it makes sense to move, and yet, it seems so attractive.

There are only three weeks until we head to Thailand for a week, then only four months left before we go back to Texas for the summer. It's going by really quickly. We'll have to make a decision on our housing before we leave, so by June at the latest.

Link to Al Reef Apartments (in the suburbs): http://www.habtoorproperties.com/sample2.html

Link to Abu Dhabi Plaza Hotel Apartments (our current residence): http://www.abu-dhabi-map.com/map/data/html/Hotels/Abu-Dhabi-Plaza-Hotel-Apartments.html

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Two Days in Dubai

It was a really short trip, just enough to get a taste of the sister city to Abu Dhabi. We had a long weekend, and decided to stay close to home. The intercity bus was only 15 dirhams per person to Dubai, and we booked a cheap hotel on booking.com, so it was a perfect two-day getaway. Mark and I had been saying we needed to get over there (a mere two-hour bus ride away) for months to check Dubai out, but we just never felt like we had enough time on a regular weekend. Some people jaunt over for just the evening, I know, but we did want to spend a bit more time. Plus, when you're dependent on public transportation, everything takes a bit more planning.

We packed light and left with our backpacks on our backs on Wednesday afternoon. The bus passed right by my new school in Al Rahba, so I got to point it out to Mark and Abby. We came into Dubai just as the sun was setting, reflected in the thousands of glass windows on hundreds of highrises. Although we had studied the map of the city, we didn't realize just how spread out it is. There are at least three different concentrations of skyscrapers. The first as you come in from the Abu Dhabi road is near the Jebel Ali industrial area. It's where the Atlantis Hotel and the Burj Al Arab are located. We could see the Burj Al Arab (most expensive hotel) from the highway, but the Atlantis is too far out, built on a palm-tree shaped island. There were many beautiful buildings at which to gawk, and then we went through a more residential-looking area. Soon we were passing futuristic, raised metro stations and the second concentration of tall buildings, including the Burj Khalifa (tallest building). That one was originally called the Burj Dubai ("burj" means tower in Arabic), but when Dubai's economy crashed and it couldn't be paid for, the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa, stepped in to pick up the bill. That fact delights Abu Dhabi residents, who have a bit of an inferiority complex in relation to Dubai.

Finally, our bus hit some heavy traffic in the oldest area of Dubai, near the bus station and Port Rashid. This area is known for the Dubai Creek, a waterway that runs through its center that no Texan would ever term a creek. It's wider than the Rio Grande. But whatever, it's very picturesque, with the water taxis called "abras" flitting from shore to shore and hotels lining the sides. We wandered around for a few minutes at the bus station, looking for a taxi, then finally made our way with some difficulty to the Rainbow Hotel on Khalid bin Waleed Street. It was really close to the bus station, but apparently not familiar to the taxi driver. We had already planned to head to the Dubai Mall that first night for some American food.

Now, expats in Abu Dhabi are always talking about how great Dubai is, how comfortable they feel there, etc. I am convinced it's because of the number of American food outlets in Dubai. Sure, in Abu Dhabi we have Fuddrucker's, Cantina Laredo and Chili's (in addition to the fast-food chains like McD's, BK, and KFC), but you have to go to Dubai for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. So that's what we did. We rode the very clean and fast metro to the Dubai Mall station, and walked right past the Burj Khalifa, stopping for Mark to get an awesome picture of the tower at night with the full moon next to its tip. Inside the massive mall, we found the Macaroni Grill right next to the Dubai Aquarium. I was excited to find my favorite meal, lobster ravioli, on the menu, but experienced crushing disappointment when I tried to order it and was told that it wasn't available. Of course. The same thing happened in Abu Dhabi at Cantina Laredo, when I tried to order the mole enchiladas. Sigh! Anyway, the chicken milano was pretty good, and definitely familiar Italian fare.

That was all we could manage for the first night, so we headed back to the hotel. The next morning we had a buffet breakfast with a decidedly Indian flair, then headed back out- to the mall again. You know, shopping at malls is the national pastime of the UAE. Forget camel racing. It's too sweaty. (They actually have robot jockeys to ride the camels these days!) This time, though, we went to the mall to get tickets to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa. Unfortunately, they were sold out for the whole weekend. Since we were already at the mall, we decided to visit the aquarium instead. For 50 dirhams each (less than $14) we walked through a tunnel under the huge tank and toured the zoo upstairs. In the tunnel, we came face-to-face with several kinds of sharks. I really enjoyed looking into the sharks' mouths from a position of safety, and staring them in the eyes. We also saw goliath groupers, rays, and many other fish up close. It was the best such attraction I have ever visited. The zoo had penguins, freshwater fish, bugs, and other animals. It was great, too. One thing I love about the UAE- there are apparently many fewer lawyers, because there are exhibits that would never be allowed in the US. Like the open tank full of piranhas with a sign that says "Please do not place your hands in the water."

After the aquarium, we went to the food court, where Abby was delighted to have Taco Bell food. Then we visited a store called Candylicious. We bought gummi bears, chocolate covered nuts, and sour powder, but I searched in vain for caramel apple pops, my favorite candy. On our way to the taxi stand, we passed a Starbucks, and the smell drew me in. It was in a part of the mall that looks like an outdoor street with sidewalk cafes, but is really indoors and air conditioned. It felt just like Las Vegas. Abby and I relaxed at Starbucks while Mark looked at the Harley Davidson store nearby. We repacked our purchases into our day pack, and prepared to go to the evening's main event- Global Village.

Wow. Global Village was wonderful. If you are ever planning to visit Dubai, be sure to come between December and the end of February, when Global Village is open. It's like a huge world's fair for just Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. There are pavilions for each participating country, except for the African pavilions, which were two for the continent. Each pavilion has booths for vendors of goods from that country. We saw so many amazing things! We could only stare and take pictures, because unfortunately, we don't have a house in which to use and display such treasures. In Pakistan, Abby and I touched all of the hand-made clothing that shimmered and sparkled. I love it that those fabrics are everyday wear. In Lebanon, we smelled all of the spices and bought a mixture called zaatar that includes sumac and sesame seeds. In Yemen, Mark bought a khanjar (curved dagger) and Abby got some honey and a free bracelet and keychain thrown in. Abby and I got matching silver hair barrettes in Afghanistan that have bells attached. We looked at purses made from soda bottle caps and carved wooden utensils in Africa, carpets from all over, silk and satin dresses and shoes from Vietnam, gold in thousands of designs, stacks of henna three feet tall....it just went on and on. As the sun went down, the crowds got huge, and we were pushed and shoved by people from everywhere, dressed every way, and smelling every how. Wonderful.

There were some funny observations to be made. One was the abundance of Spongebob merchandise. Apparently, he is loved in every corner of the globe. I don't think we entered a single pavilion that didn't have something with Spongebob's visage on it. He was much more in evidence than Hello Kitty. The other was that the line in the food court area in front of KFC was the longest line. We opted for shawarmas at Beit Jeddee (My Grandfather's House) instead. Many times throughout the night we were asked where we were from. When we said America, the reponse was always the same: "Oh, America, very good." These people do not hate America or Americans.

We left before the majority of the crowds did, and found the line for the taxis. As usual here in the UAE, there was a line for families and a line for single men, maybe a hundred people in all. The people in the lines kept trying to jump into taxis before they got to the front of the line, but one man in a khandoura and a ghutra (national Emirati dress) kept them all in order. It was so typical of the UAE. From seeming chaos, order emerges on the strength of charisma and symbols of authority.

We left pretty early the next morning and were relieved to get back to Abu Dhabi to relax for the rest of the weekend. My impression of Dubai is that it is sprawling, glitzy, and fun. I saw only a few Emiratis there, so it seems more like an expatriate haven. I was trying to think of a parallel in America, and I think Dubai is a bit like Los Angeles, compared to Abu Dhabi's more genteel San Francisco. Work happens in Abu Dhabi, and movies get made in Dubai. I know I prefer the real life in Abu Dhabi, but we'll definitely go back to Dubai. We haven't made it yet to the Wild Wadi Water Park! 

Friday, January 21, 2011

New School

I read back over my posts about school, and realized that I have sanitized them pretty heavily. They all sound so upbeat! It's not that teaching here is horrible- not at all. It's just that I'm living in a place where freedom of expression is not protected, and I have been very circumspect about posting any negative remarks in a public forum. So, the news that I changed schools doesn't really have the context it should. And here, at least, it won't. I will miss the boys in my old class, but I will just have to accept that this is not my country, and things are not done here the way I might think is right. I am very grateful that my request for a different assignment was honored.

My new school is a kindergarten with both boys and girls in the classes. It has a lovely physical setting, with a central assembly room/gym and classrooms radiating off around it. There are glassed-in courtyards, a kitchen for cooking projects, and two trampolines in the gym. It's located in a small suburb of Abu Dhabi, a place that has a community feel. Like my district in Texas, it is populated mostly by people who have moved to the area, rather than by a long-settled group. I think that makes it much more open, since everyone has had to create their own new social networks.

The model here for kindergarten is for there to be both an English-speaking teacher and an Arabic-speaking teacher assigned to each class. I am currently replacing a teacher who has gone back to the west for surgery. She may return, and if so, I will stay at the school, but work with pre-k instead of kinder. My co-teacher is Fatema, a young Emirati woman who attended a teacher college and is certified. (Many teachers here are not certified.) Our schedule begins with Fatema's circle time, including Arabic literacy and Islamic Studies. Then I do a short English literacy activity and some centers and small groups. The students go to sports, music, art, or the library for rotation classes. They have snack and playtime (recess). We have a numeracy lesson, then  a longer center time, then closing circle. The day ends by 12:15 for the students, and teachers have professional development meetings or planning time until 1:45. That's the whole day! All of it, except for Fatema's Arabic and Islamic lesson, is supposed to be bilingual. It seems like a great model for introducing the kindergarteners to English in a very gentle way. They will be well-prepared for English literacy when they reach first grade.

I am greatly enjoying working with an Emirati teacher. I think my Arabic will improve a great deal just from being exposed to the language all day. My co-teacher is excited about teaching and has great ideas. It's not much different than working with a western colleague. In the second grade, at my old school, I had the students by myself, with no local teacher. That's the ADEC model, to have English-only instruction for English, math, and science in all the grades above kinder. I think in the future, when the kinder students have reached first and second grade after having been exposed to English and foreign teachers, it will be okay to have the foreign teacher take the class by herself. These first years of the program, however, it's very difficult for the teachers teaching students who have not had much English at all, without the support of an Arabic speaker. It's even worse when it's a female teacher in an all-boys school that has issues with lack of consequences for serious behaviors.

This coming week, we will be focusing on the letter K. Our theme is community helpers, and we have a field trip on Sunday to the local police station. In math, we'll be ordering numbers to ten and telling what numbers come before or after a given number. Sounds like any kindergarten anywhere in the world!




Friday, January 7, 2011

On to Jordan

The first two days of our trip in Egypt were a whirlwind of sights and sounds. The next two days we spent traveling to Jordan, and the activity never let up. We had to make it that way, though. My dad joined us only for the first part of our trip because he needed to be back in Texas and at my sister's house in time for Christmas. We wanted to be sure he saw as much as possible for the few days he was with us!

The excursion to Jordan was the only part of the trip that I had booked in advance, other than the hotels in Cairo and Dahab. I went with Memphis Tours because they specialize in short trips and handle all the necessary arrangments for visas. The representative from Memphis Tours arrived at the Isis right on time at 11:00 PM to pick us up. We left the greater part of our luggage in a storeroom at the Isis and headed out with one small suitcase and our backpacks. Downstairs, we found a nice van with two drivers who spoke almost no English. We settled in (each having our own bench seat), inflated our neck pillows, and prepared to sleep across the Sinai Peninsula.

When you think about it, that's an enormous amount of trust in your fellow man. The Sinai is still mostly desert wilderness, and the English-speaking rep didn't accompany us out of Cairo. So we were alone with people with whom we couldn't communicate well in the pitch-black darkness all night. It turned out fine, but there were a few frightening moments. At one point I awoke because the van slowed down considerably, and saw that we were driving through a sandstorm. The road had completely disappeared, and I could see only about ten feet in front of us. I don't know how the driver kept going. It lasted about fifteen minutes, but it felt much longer. Even when there wasn't a sandstorm blowing, the road would occasionally be gone, I guess because of sand drifts. On awaking from another short doze, I listened to the two drivers speaking in Arabic. I speak and understand some classical Arabic, but don't have any experience with dialects, so I couldn't understand much. I could tell, though, that they were talking about money, and doing your job because that's what is right to do. I had horrible visions of  murder in the desert, but thankfully that's more an American movie stereotype than reality. We finally reached the seaside resort town of Taba without incident at about 6:00 AM.

We were met there by another rep from Memphis Tours who took us through immigration and got us on the ferry to Aqaba. It was amazing that the tour company had such a great set-up, with a dedicated person in each place to meet us and smooth our way. The ferry was a huge catamaran, very nice and modern. The ride across the Red Sea took less than an hour, with waves splashing over the windows to the top of the boat most of the way. Those of you who know how seasick I usually get will be surprised to hear that I made it across feeling great, if a bit tired.

In Aqaba, we were met by another driver, named Rushdi. He answered our many questions about Jordan and the places we passed on our way to the mountain city of Petra. We saw Eilat, an Israeli city, across the bay less than two miles away. We took the Kings' Highway into the mountains, an ancient track that linked several civilizations, including the Nabateans who built Petra. The history of World War I is ever-present in this area, because this was the main site of the Arab Revolt, which T.E. Lawrence made famous. I enjoyed imagining how different Aqaba must have looked when the Arabs liberated it from the Turks as compared to the busy port city it has become. I also enjoyed the realization that so much of the open countryside looks exactly the same now as it did then, or even in the times of the Roman Empire. The road stretches across the mountains with no trees to hide it. There are terraced hillsides for farming, and flocks of goats and sheep with more rugged, seemingly impassable mountains in the distance. Jordan is gorgeous, and I fell in love with it.

The Sheraton Guesthouse
It took about two hours to reach Petra, which turned out to be a charming town perched on hilly mountaintops overlooking the craggy, snaking entrance to the ancient Nabatean stronghold. Our hotel was the Sheraton Guesthouse, a cozy, stucco-white inn built over the Cave Bar, an actual bar inside a Nabatean-carved cave. We were delighted by the setting and the location, right up next to the entrance of ancient Petra. After quickly depositing our bags, we met our Petra guide, Ahmed, at the gate.

You can see the snaky valley entrance to Petra on the right.
We opted to walk the gravel path into the winding valley instead of riding horses, much to Abby's dismay. Mark, my dad, and I just didn't want the tour to go too fast. The carvings in the soft sandstone were everywhere. I was especially enchanted by a life-size relief carving of two camels and a merchant on the valley wall. It was a long walk down the path, sometimes over original paving stones, to the famous treasury building. It was incredibly majestic, with graceful details in the rosy stone. Our guide told us about the Nabateans and their wealth from taxing goods on the trade route. We saw the remains of a staircase that climbed the valley wall for maybe 200 feet to lookout points. We also walked down a street that was once lined with columns, temples, market stalls, and fountains. The city was occupied from the time of ancient Greece until the Christian era, when an earthquake destroyed many of the dwellings in the 600s AD. The people of the town mostly lived in brick buildings, saving the elaborately carved sandstone caves for burial places. They ingeniously carved a waterway along the entrance to the city that had ceramic pipes inset.

Nowadays, there are many bedouins who live in the area around Petra. They sell crafts from booths in the valley and offer rides through the ruins on camels, horses, and donkeys. Abby and I stopped to talk to two bedouin boys on donkeys. They spoke excellent English, and I asked if they went to school. They said no, the tourists are their school. We conversed in a mixture of Arabic and English, and they convinced us to ride the donkeys back to the Treasury building. It was great fun! The donkeys were much more comfortable to ride than horses, and could really move if they wanted to. I had visions of life in a bedouin camp, under the stars in the environs of ancient cities, with no school to worry about and a life of freedom. Of course it was a romantic fantasy, and I'm sure the reality would bring many hardships that I didn't imagine.

It was dark by the time we returned to the hotel. My dad fell asleep on his bed fully clothed after a nice shower. We had intended to have dinner, but everyone was too tired. Abby was next to crash, laying down to read Harry Potter and getting through less than a page. I found Mark gone after I finished my shower, and promptly conked out without even worrying about where he might be. It turned out he had to explore the Cave Bar, where he met some tourists from Hong Kong. He didn't stay there long, though. We had effectively been up since 8:00 AM the previous day, and we all enjoyed sleeping in and having an excellent buffet breakfast late the next morning.

Rushdi picked us up at noon for our trip to Wadi Rum, a desert valley of softly sculpted dunes and weathered sandstone arches. It was every bit as beautiful as Petra, only completely natural. Rushdi dropped us with a driver, Yahya, in a Land Rover, for the tour. It was awesome to take off over the dunes and lose all sight of civilization. Yahya stopped and had us take off our shoes to climb a dune. I loved the feel of the soft sand, and clambered to the top like a kid. (Just as fast as Abby, I might add.) Abby and I examined all the tracks in the sand, and found fox, bird, and beetle paths. We next stopped to pet some camels, and Abby rode one with a bedouin guide to the nearby stone arch. She dismounted giggling, telling us about a hobbled camel that hadn't wanted to be left behind, but hopped along behind her camel with its front two legs tied. We climbed the arch and got some great pictures, then drove to see an ancient dam (when could water have flowed here?) and some petroglyphs, which we surmised were advertisements for rest stops on the trade route. We then traveled on to what is known as "Lawrence's House". It's a great block of sandstone sitting on the desert floor that has been carved out on the inside, with just a small doorway on the side facing a sheer wall of stone. What a great hiding place! I imagined Lawrence and his bedouin fighters sitting silently inside while Turkish soldiers rushed past looking for them after they had carried out an attack on the railroad which still runs a few miles away over the desert. Now, however, it's used as a nursery for baby goats by the descendants of those same bedouins.

Our driver, Rushdi, was called away to pick up some Israeli tourists because he is fluent in Hebrew. He handed us off to Mohammed, who took us back to Aqaba. After a lovely shawarma dinner in downtown Aqaba, we were dropped off at the ferry. We ended up having to wait for the last ferry, because giant tour groups were booked on the first two that left. In all we only waited about 45 minutes. Our ferry ride was uneventful, and we were soon back in Egypt and getting back in the van with our same drivers to cross the Sinai again. This time I slept well.

We arrived back at the Isis Hotel at 3:00 AM and slept for two hours. My dad's flight to London and then Houston was leaving at 8, so he had to get to the airport. It was awful saying goodbye, but I was so grateful for the time we got to spend together seeing such marvellous sights. We all came away from Jordan wishing we had more time to spend there. It has less of a tourism-driven economy, which was a pleasant change from Egypt. The people we met were proud, independent, and friendly, and the scenery is spectacular. My dad was itching to ride off into the mountains on a motorcycle, something he never thought he'd contemplate in a Middle Eastern country. I think Jordan defied our preconceived notions, and I hope to go there again someday.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Visiting Cairo

(Alternate Heading: The Reason We Moved to Abu Dhabi)
Yes! This was the intent behind the big move- the opportunity to travel. We made our first big trip over the Christmas holidays, and chose to spend the 14 days in Egypt and Jordan. Abby had lots to do with our choice of destination- she said she wanted to see the pyramids the day I told her about moving here.  Well, now she has done that and many more amazing things as well. In fact, we did so much that I’m having a hard time contemplating writing about them all. I think my plan will be to write about some highlights of each place we went and then give my general impressions. I will probably have to make this several posts to be able to include any details at all.

We started our trip in Cairo, arriving after dark on the first day. A driver from the hotel picked us up: Abby, Mark, my dad, myself, and all of our luggage. He was a bit dismayed at the amount of luggage, which included a huge suitcase of Mark’s diving gear in addition to our clothes, and we had a very tight squeeze. Then we set off and had our first taste of traffic in Cairo. Let’s just say we felt incredibly lucky to make it to the hotel alive and without having mashed any pedestrians. (More about Egyptian driving later.) The hotel was actually a hostel that had great reviews on TripAdvisor and Booking.com, the Isis Hotel. It lived up to, and exceeded expectations. Our room was huge, with four beds and a private bath. We had a view of the Nile and were served tea whenever we asked for it and breakfast each morning. The best part of the Isis, however, was the proprietor, Mehdad. He arranged all of our sightseeing for Cairo and Luxor, including a flight and a train ride.  And he did it all with such a beautiful attitude and smile! That said, the hostel was quite basic. There was no heat, and the draft that came through the windows each night was very cold. The entrance to the building, in which the Isis is located on the top two floors, is unmarked and has only one tiny working elevator. The elevator only went to the fourteenth floor, so we had to get out there and walk up another flight of stairs, dragging all of our bags. And the view of the Nile was over the top of a serious slum, with trash and half-finished buildings that had piles of rubble at their bases. Still, we paid only $180 for the four of us for four nights. It was a great deal, especially once we ventured out and enjoyed the local neighborhood. We found the best pizza ever (Pizza Al Quds) right around the corner, and could walk to the Talat Harb area, which was always crowded at night with shoppers. It was relaxing to walk there because it’s not a tourist area, so no one asked us for money or tried to get us to buy things we didn’t want.


The view from our hotel.


In the Cairo area, we saw the pyramids at Sakkara, the Memphis museum, the pyramids at Giza, a perfumery, a papyrus factory, a carpet school, the old Cairo Coptic area, the Citadel, and the Egyptian Museum. The pyramids at Sakkara are step pyramids, some of the oldest structures in Egypt. They were mostly crumbling. We saw inside some of the tombs there, with amazing reliefs that were minutely detailed. We made the mistake of inadvertently acquiring a guide for the tombs, who then insisted we pay him separately from the entrance fee we had already paid. We vowed not to make that mistake again, but then, there were no interpretive signs on anything.  The Memphis museum was rather sparse, consisting mainly of a few statues. The highlight there was a sphinx in very good condition.

Our next three stops were sales pitches: carpet, perfume, and papyrus. We were awed at the intricate patterns of the silk and wool carpets, which are mainly made by children. It made me sad to see the kids working at tying knots. The perfumes were all natural essences, but very expensive. At the papyrus factory, we had a demonstration of papyrus-making, then were invited to peruse the shop’s stock of painted papyrus.

Finally, we headed to Giza, where we negotiated to pay $32 each for horses and a guide. Abdul Karim and his sidekick, Abdullah, took us on a roundabout route to the pyramids. We had seen them in the distance from the highway on our way to Giza, so it was surprising to find they had disappeared in the city. We rounded a bend, crested a dune, and looked out across that familiar sight- the three huge pyramids and the much smaller sphinx. Abdul Karim didn’t talk too much about the pyramids, but just led us to great vantage points for pictures and let us explore. We walked right up to the base of the Great Pyramid , feeling magnificently dwarfed.  The sun was on its way down, so we hurried to the sphinx and the temple. The sphinx seems so small when you’re up close to it. We were separated by about twenty feet, and had a great view of the whole thing from a platform just outside the megalithic temple. There were hundreds of chairs set up just outside the area near the sphinx for the sound and light show each evening, which we declined to attend.

Instead, we went that night to a dinner cruise on the Nile in a boat called Memphis. It was a buffet with belly dancing and Egyptian folk dancing (sort of a whirling dervish with a colorful skirt) for entertainment. There was a huge crowd of people from  Japan who rushed the buffet and almost left us with none! Thanks to Mark’s elbows, we all got some dessert. The belly dancer seemed miffed when an Arab family joined her on the dance floor and basically took it over. We thought it was funny, but by then, we were falling asleep at our table.

The next day, we headed out early to Old Cairo. It was just like you’d imagine, with twisty, narrow streets, hidden gems of churches, nunneries, tombs, and a synagogue. We met a shopkeeper whose son had been born that morning, and who invited us for a celebratory cup of tea. We bought some beautiful scarves from him, then met our driver to go to the Citadel. It was a fortress named for Saladin perched on a mountain top overlooking the whole city. We enjoyed meeting the groups of schoolchildren on field trips. They invariably wanted to practice their English on us, and were delighted when I spoke some Arabic back.

We spent the whole afternoon and early evening at the Egyptian Museum. It was a gargantuan hodge-podge of artifacts, few of which had any explanatory signage.  Apparently you are supposed to engage a local guide if you want to know about any of the millions of items inside the cavernous space. We raced through thousands of years’ worth of treasures, and only really slowed down for the King Tut exhibit. Many of the Tut artifacts had been shown in Dallas, and Abby and I had already seen them with my sister, Sandy. We were glad that Mark and my dad got the chance to goggle at the sheer weight of gold used to cover so many of the grave goods. No cameras were allowed inside, so we have no pictures, only memories. Afterwards, we returned to the hostel to relax for a few hours before being picked up at 11:00 PM for our ride across the Sinai Peninsula to the Jordan ferry. That will have o be another post.

Cairo was crowded, dirty, unfinished, and hectic. There is always traffic, except for early on Friday mornings. No one bothers with lanes while driving. I’m not sure why there are marked lanes on the roads. Perhaps as suggestions? Everyone honks as they begin to pass another vehicle, as a warning, which is crucial since you can never count on your lane staying clear. There were piles of trash and stray animals picking through it. The well-built buildings were the older ones. The newer construction is one brick-thickness and a covering of plaster on a concrete frame.  Every person who helped us in any way expected a tip, and would tell us if the offered amount was not enough. There were security police on almost every corner. But Cairo was also wonderful, cheap food, friendly people, and awesome sights. The people in the shopping districts looked well-dressed and happy. History is also on every street corner, and there is an energy that pervades the place, like in New York City. We’re so glad we had the chance to feel it for ourselves.