Saturday, April 7, 2012

We Live in Abu Dhabi

So, I did notice that it's been four months since my last post. I've thought now and then about coming up with something to say, and then haven't done it. We've just been so busy with the every day things... which is what is kind of amazing: we live here. Daily. I mean, of course we do, but sometimes I have to take a moment and picture my location on the globe- this little dusty tip of the Arabian peninsula that is home now.

And living here means we do things like this:

We visit the latest hotels as they open. This one is the Hyatt Capital Gate. It was built with an 18 degree lean, making it the leaning-est tower  in the world.

You can see that the inside has this massive infrastructure to support the weight of the leaning building.

 When a special event is coming up (we heard it was Sheikh Khalifa's birthday this time) the UAE stunt jets start practicing right over our house. It's quite a show!

Now that Tucker is here, and Mark has tamed the garden, we spend a fair amount of time outside with him. He likes to bark at the cats and the chickens that roam the neighborhood.
We met another dog that lives on the street behind us, a German shepherd puppy twice as big as Tucker. Maybe she can come over and play.
 We brought Abby's Wii that she got for Christmas and plugged it in using a massive voltage converter. I love the archery on Wii Sports! It's about the only thing I can beat everyone on.
 So, a city can have really amazing things when financial profit is not the only goal. The powers that be in the UAE decided sustainable energy development is a good idea, so Masdar City was created. It's almost empty- a looming shell that may turn out to be a fantastic model for green building and living. We are about to get in the solar powered pod car to take us from the parking area to the sushi restaurant.

We are getting used to being surrounded by beautiful architecture and design.  When the money is there, why not make everything both functional and great to look at?

Mark, my dad, and I constantly notice the attention to beauty that has gone into so many of the buildings here, but I think Abby is just taking the architecture for granted.

Abby had a conversation with the TV sports announcer at the Al Wathba Camel Races. He was interested to know where she was from and if she had ever seen camels race before. I love this picture. So many places we go are swamped with expats, as we greatly outnumber the locals. It's not every day that you get to converse with an Emirati.

This sight is more common than you might think:

"ships of the desert" being carted around in the desert "workhorse," the Toyota truck.

Our eating habits haven't changed too much, other than my new preference for tea over coffee and an increase in the amount of rice we eat.

We are learning to appreciate some local specialties, like this one- lukaymat, which are donut-like fried dough balls with a sweet glaze.

When we left Texas, we were really glad to get away from the over-scheduled feeling of activities every day. It was exhausting. After two years of freedom, though, we have done it again. Abby has tae kwon do class twice a week, and home school park day and horse riding once a week.

Then, add in all the extra things like book clubs, math club, shared learning experiences, field trips, and just special activities offered here for free, like the book fair and the sailing club's Beach Day (that's Abby sailing in the picture), and you have a very busy life.

And I haven't even talked about work, which has been great but busy. I love being the head of faculty because I feel like I can make a difference for the English teachers by smoothing the way between them and the Emirati administrators. I work in a school that is excellent, with an extremely demanding principal and hard-working teachers. Each day is completely different. I spend time organizing resources, planning for and delivering professional development, preparing the English parent newsletter, popping into classes, and lately, preparing for official school inspections that will happen in the next two weeks. I talked to a former coworker at a different school who said that they have been leaving each day at 1:00, right after their students leave. Our students leave at 12:30, and we are often still at school at 3:00! It's worthwhile when you see the progress the children are making, and you hear the comments of the parents about their appreciation of our school.

Well, that's why I haven't posted in ages. I've just been so busy living here.

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!