Monday, December 15, 2014

The Tale of Two Trees

Plant Street Canadian imports
Coulda been a contender!
The "tree trek"- to fetch a Christmas tree- is a time honored tradition for me. Last year, my first Christmas season in Dubai, I took the metro to a trippy garden store and bought a leggy local plant to stand in for a pine. This year, I heard that there might be trees worth checking out on "Plant Street" in the Satwa neighborhood. I mentioned Satwa in a recent post, declaring it  my new favorite neighborhood for all of the fabric and trim shops but I hadn't yet seen this "Plant Street"- in quotation marks because while that's what people call it, that's not it's name on a map, it's Hubaida Street near the Iranian Hospital, which is, by the way, partially covered in beautiful tile work. So off I went. The one major drawback to Satwa is the lack of parking and the metro wasn't going to be an option here. I found a place on a side street and walked on over. There were trucks of cut pines all the way from Canada mostly. They were selling for roughly $100US and up and we're pretty uniform in size and shape ( about 5-6 ft tall and
loading up the tree, city skyline
very triangular). There were takers for sure but I didn't want to go that route. I considered a pomegranate sapling because I loved my pomegranate tree at my house in Vegas, but it was really a baby and I didn't think a pot on my 14th floor balcony was going to be an environment where it would thrive and fruit. I did ask if they had any other pomegranates, just out of curiosity, and learned that if I wanted say, a dozen, anything would be possible. Bulk buying can be customized. For one, nope, they had what they had. Might have something different in a few weeks. The bushier fig plant was a contender but for similar reasons, rejected. An interestingly woven lucky bamboo plant challenged me to think about where I might hang ornaments but in the end, I couldn't resist the little table top pine in a pot. Also, I had no clue how I would have lugged the heavier potted fig back to my back street parking spot. As it was, it was pretty funny to stroll down the block, past the Indian cafe, hugging a tiny pine. As the sun set over the city, I packed up my tree. I needed to stop for gas on the way home and I had a nice exchange with the man working at the pump. He shyly asked,
Riding with a fir

Madam, is that a tree for Christmas, I ask because I have just yesterday also found one tree for Christmas...

Me: Yes, yes it is. So you celebrate Christmas? (many people here are Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim and don't)

Him (earnestly, with hand on heart): Madam, I am Roman Catholic

Me: Well let me wish you a very Merry Christmas then

Him (extending his hand to shake): And to you as well, and in advance, may I also wish you a happy new year!

With that happy wish, I brought my little tree home, set it up near my faux fireplace, made of cardboard wine and small furniture boxes. I created it in a fit of maniacal craftiness.

both trees
The very next morning in the elevator I ran into a fellow ZU faculty member with an apartment a few floors up but only until February when he's moving on to new things. 

Martin: Right then, have you got the holidays sorted, tree and all?

Me: Just picked up a tiny table top pine last night!

Martin: Rubbish, you must have the posh 6 foot tree I've got. I'm getting rid of everything. Fancy a set of golf clubs too?

So I am now the proud owner of a used faux evergreen that came with a set of fancy lights that cycle through all kinds of twinkling patterns and a truly ridiculous amount of tinsel garland. And a table top live pine (quite a relief that now the pressure if off to keep the little table top pine alive until next December). It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, the halls are decked, fa la la la.

the cardboard fireplace

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the end of bad hair season

I've started seeing pictures and hearing stories from friends and family about snow and freezing temps in the US. Meanwhile here in the sandbox, it's become glorious outside after a long sweaty summer. I'm not trying to gloat (much). This is our reward for surviving months of swampy heat, humidity and bad hair days. Most people are pretty surprised when I mention the humidity. I was surprised when by it when I started looking into living here. I guess it's due to living on the Arabian Gulf. We get so much humidity, actually, that sometimes we have fog.

We also get rain, kind of infrequently, but it's not unheard of and actually, rainy days are on the rise due to a program of cloud seeding. I'd heard of cloud seeding schemes only as a hoax used to swindle desperate farmers out of the last of their money during the dust bowl days in the US but apparently the technology has come a long way. The UAE has a Cloud Seeding Operations Section at the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology and, for the past 15 years, has been using primarily salts and/or trace amounts of silver iodide to make it rain up in here (more often out in the emirates closer to the mountains where they have dams and reservoirs to fill.). They need a good shaped cloud to start with and the right updraft conditions, then they send the pilots up to shoot up the clouds. Kinda cool, even if I don't much like precipitation.

Another weather-ish phenomena we get is the sandstorm! Now I've seem Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, and the Mission Impossible movie set in Dubai and I expected a Hollywood style wall of sand, roiling it's way toward the city. I was both relieved and a little disappointed to witness my first sandstorm. I had to clarify with several people, "So is this a sandstorm, then?" when I looked outside and the sky was kind of yellowish green and gritty looking. I did see one sort of roll in from the desert from my apartment balcony one day. It wasn't a wall but there was clearly blue sky in one direction and not in the other... and then the not-blue-sky bits just kind of expanded. The picture on the left is more or less the same view as the picture on the right, just in the middle of a sandstorm. Looks a little like the fog, huh? It's thicker and dirtier and leaves behind more of a mess.

But this past month, no rain, no fog, no sandstorms and big drops in humidity. It's beach weather by day, sitting out by the creek weather at night. This is the season to visit, my friends!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


For my first Halloween in the Middle East, I wanted to go for a bit of a local flare so I decided to dress as Cleopatra and to try to evoke a little "curse of the mummy" spookiness. I knew, from arriving last year in early December, that Christmas gets a lot of play, the shops are full of twinkling trees and Santas, there are events featuring fake snow and real penguins, and so on. But how was a made-in-America holiday featuring witches, ghosts and devils gonna fly in a fairly religious country?  There were no bags of candy corns showing up on shelves in August, even 3 weeks out, in early October, when I went in search of a plastic skull for my meathead, I was told to come back in a week or two for Halloween items. I knew I'd have to improvise.

First, I made a cat mummy. I was going to just shape him out of plastic grocery bags, pillow filler and packing tape, but then I kinda liked the look of the packing tape and, it turns out that they don't really sell gauze strips here. Gauze pads, clever gauze tubes to slip over all kinds of wounds, ace bandages, but no rolls of gauze to wrap a mummy cat. so his final outer layer is packing tape.

I had a sheet I was prepared to tear into strips to make my larger human mummy project but it was going to take way more grocery bags than i had on hand to shape this guy. Water bottles, milk bottles, a plastic bucket that had been filled with candy, a shoe box, a packing box, a thin synthetic IKEA comforter that didn't fit my beds... my mummy is a regular recyclers dream and is about the size of a 10 year old.

I did find some Halloween decorations in stores- a surprisingly good selection at the Choithrams which is an Indian owned chain? We made canoptic jars (for the storage of organs in the mummification process) from Pringles cans and salt dough, I covered boxes with craft paper and hieroglyphics for bricks, used crumpled pieces of brown paper bags (covered with more hieroglyphics) to finger paint out messages in blood red paint from the cursed, taped spiders and webs to the wall and called it decorated.

A few grocery stores sold traditional bright orange jack-o-lantern style pumpkins imported from the US but they were going for about $5 per pound, and pumpkins are pretty heavy fruit. I decided to take advantage of some other more local produce options and to try out carving a papaya and pineapple. Also, we picked up a few local pumpkins, kind of a yellow/ green color and typically a bit smaller than US jack-o-lanterns, but pretty good carvers. The papaya was a nice surprise- the orange flesh inside glowed really vibrantly. And the pineapple stem made for cute "hair". And we could eat the "guts" as we scooped them!

I did my usual food spread with the meathead (in the end my sister sent a plastic skull which arrived just in the nick of time!) and a watermelon brain and the stuffed date roaches (scarab beetles this year). I also added a pyrex dish full of "intestines" (brie and chutney in puff pastry tubes, coiled in the dish in a creepy way) and a friend made witch finger cookies.

Bringing my favorite holiday to Dubai went pretty well! Just wait until next year.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

it's a colorful day in the neighborhood!

Al Satwa is my current favorite Dubai neighborhood and I haven't even had dinner at its hallmark Pakistani restaurant, Ravi. More goodness to look forward to! This funky 'hood is packed full of fabric and notions shops, not to mention tailors and the ubiquitous "General Trading" stores. There's a lively vibe- unless you come in the middle of the day as places close up for a long lunch between about noon and 4PM- but without the hard sell, pushiness of Karama (another neighborhood with fun goods on offer, mentioned in my previous post about the gold facial.) I've gone twice recently as part of my Halloween costume preparations.

I needed a drapey, flowing dress for the costume base. I decided to give the tailors a try.  I brought along a dress with a good fit and style but with flowers all over (Cleopatra is not workin the tuber roses) and then we went into Regal Fabrics, one of the bigger fabric shops. The choice was overwhelming. Luckily we got help and keeping to a budget and a solid color also made it possible to walk out of there without my head exploding. So many rich and varied fabrics!

The fabric store guy walked us down the street to their recommended tailor for a "same same" job. I handed them the fabric and the model dress and they quoted me the price. It was a little more spendy than I expected but I guess it's because the dress is full of gathers and folds and the necessary drapey-ness. And really, upon further consideration, I realized, it's a custom made, floor length dress for under $50 (not counting the material cost) so really, not bad. And I intentionally chose something I can wear again without golden and bejeweled accessories when I'm just being me and not a long-dead Egyptian empress. They were a little busy with the Eid holiday but I wasn't in a big rush so we agreed, two weeks later I'd pick it up. And that's what happened. It's crazy how exactly it matches the model dress. When I went in to pick it up there was a woman with pictures from magazines having her measurements taken. I could really see this becoming a cool but expensive habit: pick some of the amazing fabric, pair it with a magazine photo of a dream dress, have it custom made...

We also visited the "notions" shops. Ribbons and beads, trim and buttons. The trim, though! I have to come up with some project to make with this stuff. I think I may just glue strips of it to a board and call it art. It's fantastical- embroidered and sparkly, brightly colored...

Another thing they sell in Satwa is majlis seating. A majlis is a kind of traditional sitting room/ receiving room characterized by low cushions and armrests- I really wanted some majlis seating for my apartment both so there'd be more places to hang out and because the cushions can double as comfy spare bed set ups for party goers who opt not to try for home. They typically feature a lot of red. With the red couches in my living room, I wanted something a little less bold. We met a shop guy, his name is Mohammed, who'd made a little Barbie sized version of the majlis. I may have to go back and see if he'll sell me a mini version to go with my full sized one. We negotiated (OK not really, I took his price because it was reasonable and he was such a smiley guy) and then Mohammad's nephew ran us around the block to the workshop to load up the car  and then later at my apartment, Michelle helped me cram it all in the mini shopping carts we have in the building. It's a fold-able couch!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

got gas?

Just a quick post on a bit of everyday life: fueling up. The price for gas, or petrol as it’s often called here, is cheap. It’s quite the story problem to calculate, converting liters to gallons and dirham to dollars but I think I figured out that it hovers around $2 per gallon. What was it when I was in the US last summer? About $4 per gallon? Despite the great prices in the UAE, we still suffer a little pain at the pump. Here, the problem is the lines. All stations in the UAE are full service stations, there is no pump-your-own choice. The pumps tend to look like they were installed in the 1970s but that’s unlikely as most of the stations I visit probably didn’t exist in the 70s. Heck, the road that the station is on might not have existed in the 70s. But still, slow, non-digital pumps without credit card readers are the norm in this otherwise tech-mad environment. Turns out, the vast majority of cars have the gas tank on the driver’s side. And these old style pumps have short hoses that will only reach the tank on the near side of the car. And the station flow of traffic is very regulated, no flipping a u turn to come at the pumps from the other side, everyone must enter one direction and drive through in the same direction. So those lucky so and sos with a gas tank on the passenger side rarely have a wait while those of us in the big majority sit in a line, waiting while the digits on the pump slowly flip to fill the tanks of the other half dozen people ahead of us…
gas lines

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


baby mynah fueling up before flying lessons
During my first week of work at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, I was chatting excitedly with the Provost about having seen a real live moose in the woods while hiking the weekend before. He was kind enough not to roll his eyes at me, but as  I learned later, moose were regulars at his place in Park City. They were pesky eaters of young trees and would wander into garages in his neighborhood.

I've seen people in parks take dozens of pictures of chipmunks, the same little rodents that my mom catches in a trap to release across town to try to mitigate the damage they do burrowing up the lawn.

It's funny how the critters you see all the time in a place can start to become less impressive.It hasn't happened here yet though!  Much like in the desert around Las Vegas, wildlife sightings here are a little less ubiquitous and still exciting and impressive.

Birds are by far the animals I see the most of. There are the pigeons and- one time a baby mynah and parents- on my 14th floor window sill, the flamingos In Ras Al Khor (translates, I think, to Head of the Creek)
Ras al Khor flamingos
that I pass on the way to/ from work everyday and the fantastic variety that I see on the ZU grounds. In he courtyard there are little white cheeked bulbuls with bright yellow or red under-bums. On the lawns at the entrance I often see water birds like white egrets or along the sandy road side, little chukkar-like game birds. Every now and again I see this crazy awesome bird strutting around on the ground. It looks a bit like a woodpecker but apparently it's a hoopoe- and instead of pecking at trees/ wood, it pokes its beak into the ground to pull up tasty insects, and if they're a little large to swallow, it bashes them against the ground or a
must confess, not my photo, but a great shot of the hoopoe
rock to knock off wings or legs. I just love how dramatic its crown and coloring. Apparently they can spread open those crown feathers in a fan- got to catch that kind of preening at some point!

A few weekends ago, Michelle and Layla and I went to the Arabian Wildlife Center in Sharjah Desert Park to learn what other critters are in the area. This place was great- it's an indoor zoo! In a climate like this, what a concept. And it was surprisingly large and also had a very modest entry fee for the whole Desert Park which also includes a Natural History Museum, a petting zoo and a botanical museum- but the Wildlife Center was the star attraction. I figured being indoors there'd mostly be rodents and reptiles-
which they did have plenty of! But they also had wild cats of various types and sizes, even a cheetah (the cheetah was outside, but we viewed it from inside), and jackals and foxes, porcupines and bats, an aviary room, some ungulates (mostly oryx- also outside), an Arabian wolf, orangutangs and a little cafe. All the animals at the center can be found (or could be found before they were hunted to local extinction) on the Arabian peninsula. The sheer variety of subspecies of gerbils was pretty staggering. My favorite reptile was this weird creature called the Sandfish (or scincus scincus for the biologist types) that burrows, or swims under the surface of the sand, we weren't allowed to take photos in the wildlife center, sadly, but you can see a really quick video of one diving under the sand here: 

As it starts to cool off and I get to do more camping, I'm guessing I might spot a few of the reptiles, rodents and insects we saw at the wildlife center. On my one overnight in the Abu Dhabi desert so far, I didn't run into anything but in the morning, it was clear they'd been around!
camping: morning after tracks. gerbil?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Travel Happens

Before I moved to Dubai I read the blogs of several strangers and acquaintances. I always skimmed or skipped over the bits when they wrote about their holidays in Istanbul or Washington DC, their visits to Petra and the Taj Mahal. I didn't want travelogues, I wanted day-to-day-life-logues. I've got to admit, however, that travel really IS day to day life here for many, including me. I've already blogged about my travels to Muscat and Socotra Island, so far I've let the Doha and Beirut trips pass without writing but I'll partway remedy that with this post, but first, a word on my first trip back to the US.

I won't detail my itinerary, many of you readers got to enjoy part of it with me. Suffice to say I was lucky enough to do a full western US ramble with camping, friends and family, exquisite slot canyons and neighborhood BBQ, geysers and kayaks, ferris wheels, neon and mountain picnics, oh my! And I got to laze away another chunk of time in the Midwest: beaches and berries, more family, all manner of farm critters and sweet corn and pork! There was shopping more familiar sizes and less rhinestone covered shoes, stocking up on Trader Joe's treats and random OTC meds. There was, most of all, a sense of comfort that is still lacking in the UAE. I'll get there, I think, but now, doing the business of living- things like grocery shopping and finding an address- is still not entirely normal. But I'm figuring it all out, little by little. I've got the art of the weekend trip in hand and have been checking out regional cities, north and south, east and west of here.

empty airport
performing arts venue
Back in May, I went to Doha, Qatar to visit my friend Carol who is library director for VCU's campus there. We flew into Doha's shiny new, slightly unfinished airport. We were the only plane on the many runways, the only passengers in the very high tech, top of the line passport control lines. This experience set the tone for the rest of the weekend for me. My overall impression of Doha is that it is
still becoming... We visited a gorgeous cultural village with a Coloseum-like performing arts venue and well laid out art galleries. It was a ghost town. We went to an intimate jazz club for a show by
Carol's view with dirt island
world class musicians and the very small room didn't fill. Carol has an apartment on an island complex with a fantastic balcony view of a man made harbor full of yachts and a funny dirt island that is rumored to be the site of a future low rise, high cost hotel but for now is nothing, unused, gated off. Walking around the shopping arcades on the ground level of Carol's building we saw dueling luxury car dealers (was it Maserati and Porsche?), some haute couture, and a lot of empty spaces, available for lease.

There seems to be an interest from Qatar's ruling family to make Doha a center for arts in the region and some of the investment toward this
Museum of Islamic Art
goal is remarkable. The Museum of Islamic Art had cool collections, a great gift shop, and was housed in a striking building designed by I.M. Pei. We took a ride out into the desert to see an installation piece by Richard Serra that is massive in scale is is only one of several of his pieces in Qatar. The artworks, the jazz, the cultural village and more... there's this investment of money, but they seem to be still teetering on the brink of the whole "if you build it, they will come" phenomena. Will "they" come? And who is the target anyhow? Qataris? Ex-pats? I couldn't get a handle on it. I liked Doha, other than some crappy traffic problems, it seemed very live-able. I found it lovely to look at, well done from a design stand point, but maybe lacking in a little liveliness or spark. Maybe still poised for full launch, with just one
Serra's piece in the desert
airline on the runway for now....

Saturday, June 14, 2014

all that glitters...

A colleague and I took a chance on a groupon for gold facials, it seemed a very Dubai kind of thing, super bling. The photo with the groupon made it especially temping. But it was a groupon after all and we paid less than $20 and it was at a place called the Boutique Beauty Saloon, nope, not a typo on my part, not Salon, Saloon, in the Al Karama neighborhood. Karama being known mostly for its sprawling market selling knockoff designer handbags and watches. More on that in a bit, suffice it to say, we headed off for the facial knowing it was likely to be a bit of an adventure.
picture from ad for the facial

It's hot now. Really, really stinkin' hot and the humidity makes it unrelenting. Actual temperatures are reported as only right around 100-105 F but with 60-70% humidity even a breeze or moving into the shade doesn't provide that much relief.

[A quick side note on measurements: I'm doing well with the miles to kilometer conversions and I love my weight in kilos! But I can't get my brain around the Fahrenheit to Celsius thing. Just a few degrees difference in Celsius converts to bigger differences in Fahrenheit- or bigger differences in my perception of how hot it is at least. It seems to me that since I came in December, I've experienced highs between 75 and 105 F but I swear, on the radio they've only reported highs between 28 - 38 C. I hear that there's some general agreement toward rounding down the high temps in the broadcast media...]

entering the Saloon
do we look golden?
So it's only a block or so walk from the metro station to the Saloon, however, we turn it into a bit more of a walk because there are no addresses here, things are described as being near other things and if you can't spot those other things easily... anyhow, we arrived dripping sweat at the weird little hole in the wall that was our destination. The staff handed us elastic waisted skirts that we were supposed to put on hitched up under our armpits instead of our tops and we were herded into a room with an unused pedicure station and no door to change. OK, now on to the treatment room which consisted of a couple of massage tables draped with plastic and a contraption on wheels that was combo steam wand, lighted mirror, make up table. A little low on the whole spa atmosphere and vibe. The Saloon ladies were pleasant and really, so was the facial, if a little goopy (the facial, not the ladies.) Lots of products applied and massaged (nice massage techniques employed, pressure points and all of that) into our skin, wiped off, and steamed in. They used ice used to cool down the application of some products. Finally the gold! Which was a peel off mask. We took many selfies as the mask dried, hoping to capture that golden bling look but we mostly just looked shiny and slick with goo with maybe a touch of sparkle or jaundice, depending on the angle. At least wearing the armpit skirt thing gave our shirts a good chance to dry before heading back out into the soup.

Next it was off to the Karama market. A little more aimless wandering through blocks of low rise apartment buildings with lots of laundry on balconies and dripping aircon units hanging out over the sidewalks. Very different from the sleek glass and metal highrises where I live or the walled suburban villas of Mirdiff where Sarah lives. We knew we were getting close to the market area as we were approached by guys offering "handbags? watches? Coach? Louis Vuitton? sunglasses?" I learned last week at DragonMart about how there are knockoffs and then there are knockoffs. How the really good fakes are not on display in stores but are stashed in nearby apartments because selling fakes that real is not totally legal. It was way too hot to consider a foray off to some apartment storehouse and I wasn't energetic enough for the haggle and game and process involved in finding a great fake today. Another time. [Another quick side note, this time on safety: people think "oh scary Middle East" when they hear you're living in a Gulf country but I swear, the biggest danger about life in Dubai is the danger
i had ice cream with unidentifiable fruit. wikipedia tells me it's sapodilla
of getting fat from brunches and inactivity and of growing too accustomed to cheap housekeeping services. It's not really dodgy to head off to random apartments, or to walk through lower income housing blocks alone. In some places you might get stared at, but personal crime is remarkably low and if the newspapers are any indication, most violent crime takes place in the home between husbands and wives or maids and employers.] We shopped a few souvenir joints and browsed some others mostly for the AC in the shops before decided we had to go try to find (more confused wandering, this time down an alley that required a scramble over a small wall) an Indian ice cream place I'd heard of in Karama near Burjuman Center. Flavours is a little shop selling tasty and unusual ice cream, I had two scoops of ice cream with names and tastes I couldn't really identify: rajbhog (which when searched in google generates links to several sweet shops or companies making sweets and pictures of fried Indian dough balls in syrup but, in ice cream, tasted a bit of saffron) and chicky chikoo (which featured chiku which seems to be a fruit called sapodilla but tasted of dates or raisins.) We agreed, Karama would make a great neighborhood for a longer wander in cooler weather but that this sweaty adventure was a good preview!