Saturday, January 25, 2014

Off to the (camel) races!

In a recent post I wrote about a few things I was glad I brought or did in advance of coming here. The hands-down best thing I did is to have an amazing and adventurous friend willing to spend her Christmas break in the Middle East with me! It would have been a pretty painful holiday if not for Andrea's visit. As it was, we celebrated both here and virtually back in the States via Skype and we also had the chance to explore my new home. This is a very belated post about one of the awesome things we did.

at the gate
The Dubai Camel Racing Club has a track about 40 minutes outside of the city on the Dubai- Al Ain Road (the road I take to work every day). December to March they hold races on Fridays. We went to the early morning runs (we got there around 7:30) of the younger but not youngest camels. They run different lengths based on their age. An Emirati co-worker read the online schedule for me- it's in Arabic- I think she said they were running the 8km track- what is that, like 4-5 miles? It's a big track! We came at it from behind the grandstand after driving along between camel... not sure what to call them... more than pens, less than farms, not stables... camel outfits? Anyhow, there's a clubhouse for the members and VIP seating both inside and out but peons like us just wandered into the grandstand's general seating area. People were largely crowded around TV screens as the camels were on the far side of the track but pretty soon we could see them coming. Actually, we didn't see the camels coming so much as we could see the sun glinting off the fleet of SUVs that circle the track with the camels. I think owner and remote-control-jockey operators get to ride inside the track along with a daring guy who perches in a chair on top of a big truck and mans the camera that provides the
and they're off!
feed on the grandstand TV monitors. General spectators and anyone else who's up for it ride on the outside of the racetrack it seems. An announcer was calling the race in Arabic but it had the same sound and rhythms as any horse race.

We were the only females at the races for the first half an hour or so (more came later- but only tourists, I didn't see any local women though it's possible- not likely- that they were somewhere in the clubhouse.) There were maybe 6-10 people milling around like us who clearly had nothing to do with the camel care but most people there were camel owners and caretakers and they were caught up in the races. We wandered around and discovered we could stand at the starting gate, right down next to the track. They run about 15-20 camels at once. The gate doesn't have individual slots for each camel like at a horse race. Instead they're all lined up along one pole, side by side and when the pole lifts, the tether that was keeping them at the gate drops away and they're off with their gawky lopes! They kind of sway and some don't run especially straight out of the gate but it's exciting being right up beside them. I just read that camels can run about 40mph (65kmph) in short sprints and can sustain 25mph (40kmph) speeds for an hour or more. If I'd had a better car for it, we might've tried driving alongside on the outer track- next time!

robot jockeys
They used to use kids as jockeys but they put an end to that practice and went hi-tech. There are little robot boxes that sit on the hump. They have a radio controlled arm with a crop that whirls around urging the camels to go faster! We watched some of the camels lounging about pre-race and being fitted with their robot jockeys. Andrea asked a guy testing his out if she could lift one to see how heavy they are and the report is that those little robots are dense. The camel blankets (we also stopped at a weird strip mall full of camel ropes and blankets and food and vets along with giant cooking pots and little else) have a hole for the hump top! The camels have some really expressive faces and remarkable eyelashes. Their front and back knees bend in opposite directions so when they sit, it looks a bit like a card table collapsing. 

The camel races were a great taste of local culture! Come visit in season and I'll take you!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

BBQ madness

Last weekend I was invited to join a young Egyptian family on a BBQ. The plan was to go after
prayers on Friday, that translated to 3 or 4 in the afternoon. They came to pick me up: mom, dad, 2 daughters and Filipino nanny plus a small dolly to haul a cooler, four adult chairs, one child's chair, a small charcoal grill and 2 bags of charcoal, lighter fluid, chips, bottled water and 3 giant tupperware containers of meat. plus there was a stroller and the tiny cooler I brought with some bread and salads. I think it was more luggage then I brought when moving to the country for 3 years. We joined the throngs of people filling up Al Safa Park. BBQs in the park with the whole family and practically a small camp set up are wildly popular. We settled on a patch of grass surrounded by other groups and fired up the grill. We ate mountains of lamb chops. We tried both tiny tender Australian chops and big flavorful local chops. But then there were the birds! Little local quail, super juicy. I've seen some hanging out near the apartment hotel because it's sitting more or less in a weird patch of desert. We sat and ate and talked and relaxed. I felt so lucky to be invited along. huge thanks to this lovely couple!
el shaimaa and achmed- notice we're not alone in the park!

livin' and learnin'

I'm hoping that this blog, in addition to being a good way to share part of my adventure in the Middle East with friends and family, can also help me to pull together thoughts for others headed this way. Before I came, I asked everyone I met with experience in the UAE, or experience living abroad, what did they bring with them that proved to be important or what didn't they bring that they wished they had? I'm sure my own answers to those questions are going to evolve and grow once I move out of the hotel apartment bubble with daily housekeeping and dish washing and breakfast on my own... but one thing I've already noticed is that the "why?" behind answers to those questions can be interesting.

One person suggested that I'd appreciate having an unlocked iPhone or something similar, she mentioned that people "conduct a lot of business" here via SMS. I expected colleagues maybe setting up meetings or asking simple questions via text but no, I get the most texts from my bank and they're not junk really. I get alerts when I use my credit card, when a check I've deposited has cleared and the funds are now available, if I'm making a change to my online profile and they need to add  a layer of security they text me an access code and more. I was also alerted by text from the government when my ID was ready for pick up and I was sent a link to the traffic handbook after i got my driver's license. At the mall, there's probably free wifi but you'll need a password and no problem, they'll text it to you. Oh! If you get busted speeding by a radar camera, they'll SMS you with the ticket and if your account with Salik, the toll system, needs recharging, guess how they're going to let you know? Happily, when you receive texts or even phone calls, you don't pay! You only pay when you initiate them. And with my sim card (they handed me about 10 or so and let me pick my favorite phone number from the lot- let me know if you want my number, it has a lot of double 5s) it's super easy to buy a recharge code from the grocery store or the circle K on campus or wherever so I can just add value to my account- no monthly fee, no plan, just pay as I go. Having a phone that you're comfortable with that you can make work with the UAE carriers has been essential. Super glad I had that.

While the whole business of living in the apartment hotel for 2 months seemed like a bad deal at first, I have to admit, I'm kinda glad it worked out this way. Except for not being able to really be with my cat, Butternut, there have been a lot of upsides. For someone coming over with a more typical timeline which allows for a week or less to furnish a place entirely, I'd suggest trying to get to an Ikea
my red couches
repeatedly prior to arriving in the UAE to test beds and couches for their actual comfort rather than how comfortable they will feel when you're panic-outfitting your place on a 120 degree day and you're also stupid with jet lag. I'm the proud owner (with delivery a few weeks out yet) of a fancy name brand mattress with continuous coil and latex and other stuff that went over my head- I decided I didn't want to skimp on my mattress- that I got 50% off because it's the Dubai Shopping Festival all month long. I also scored 2 red couches and a little black footstool type thing at 60% off plus a discount because they were the floor models- no furniture from Ikea yet! (though I expect that is likely to be where i get the guest bedroom stuff) I'm getting most of my kitchen used from a colleague who is moving and I think I'll hold out for interesting and "ethinic" wood pieces like tables and chairs. and carpets! It's about time for me to engage in the carpet buying dance but that will be a post all it's own.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Everyday Islam

At the mall
I was talking to a guy at work awhile back and he made the comment that he grew up in a suburb of Melbourne Australia and that even after being here 4 years, he still notices the call to prayer, it's still just a bit remarkable to him but he's pleased to be raising kids here who are exposed to all sorts of culture and religion. Kids who don't bat an eye at the sound of the call or a woman in a burqa or celebrating Diwali or Halloween for that matter. It's all still remarkable to me too, the way this religion that I'm not so familiar with is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

In the newspaper each day there's a small box, much like the other small box that reports the weather and sunrise and so on, this one is labeled "Prayer Timings" and it lists out the 5 times scheduled for the call to prayer that day. The times shift a bit with the seasons and calendar. I like the voice of the man who does the call at the mosque near my apartment/ hotel, very melodic and peaceful. In my bedroom here there's an arrow stuck up on the ceiling pointing toward Mecca to help with orientation at prayer time. In the malls, LCD screens that normally run ads will switch to a peaceful image of a mosque during prayer time and public buildings- malls, offices, even gas stations that serve as rest areas on an open stretch of highway- will have separate prayer rooms available for men and women. We have a prayer room in the Library.

cloudy morning room view at spa
robes? check. towels? check. prayer rugs? check.
Having certain things separated by gender can be pretty great for me. I went to a post office today that had a Ladies' Line which was much shorter than the general line. On the metro there's a ladies' car (open to kids too) which isn't any less crowded during peak times but does tend to smell better! I went to a ladies only spa this past weekend and it had a lovely vibe with all of us wandering about in fluffy robes by the seaside for mani-pedi's and massages and an overnight stay- we booked all 5 available rooms and had the place to ourselves in the evening after the day spa crowd left. I opened the closet in my room at the spa and thought, "oh! did they provide us with little beach blankets?" but no, upon further inspection I realized there were 2 prayer rugs provided in my room.

While the "ladies only" bits are sometimes nice, the no bacon and booze bits are more of a challenge
"pork for non-muslims" section of the grocery
but not an insurmountable challenge for the non-Muslim. There are pork sections in some grocery stores and liquor can be had easily (if expensively) by the drink at hotels or in full bottles in designated liquor stores with a number of rules and hurdles, but it's not much more onerous than the laws in Utah!

These are all the outside trappings of Islam as I run up against them day to day. Of course there's an entire rich belief system underlying all these things. I've learned a bit about that as well but as a not especially religious person, I find it less compelling than the cultural expressions of belief and traditions inspired by the religion.
post spa stop at the barracuda liquor emporium
purchases wrapped for transport

Monday, January 6, 2014

Prozac nationalism?

in the snowpark at ski dubai in the mall
Recently the Vice President of the UAE, Sheik Mohammed, launched a campaign to thank and honor the President, Sheik Khalifa. The veep called on citizens and residents to blog, tweet, email, stand on a street corner and shout... as part of the whole "Thank you Khalifa!" project.  Now, just a few days later, we're moving on to crowd sourcing a Twitter auto-biography of Dubai. Again, Sheik Mohammed goes to the people and asks them to use social media technology to share their joy and enthusiasm for this town. And, if the free newspaper at my apartment hotel is to be believed, people respond, in the tens or even hundreds of thousands- filling cyberspace with good wishes, photos and stories. The letters to the editor today were congratulating the city on the fabulous fireworks on New Year's Eve and admonishing us to resolve, in the new year, to make the world a better place. There's no vitriol, no complaints, no preaching about how wrong/ sinful/ uninformed the other side is about issue x or y or z... it feels a little like living in a big puffy cloud of self congratulations and enthusiasm. Weird, but actually, not unpleasant. It feels like this whole happy happy thing is really kinda sincere or at least not totally a made up facade. Is there a smiley face slapped over some grim financial inequalities? Are the people so blissed out on huge discounts on mattresses that they don't notice that their ability to self govern is at the pleasure of a benevolent but all powerful ruler? I think so, but I also think a lot of people really are largely content with their reality. I may learn otherwise, given time, but for now, I'm going to check out the Serta king-sizes that are rumored to be 30-50% off for the Dubai Shopping Festival and I'm going to post some lovely pictures of Dubai's charms from my week exploring with Andrea. Qnd the fireworks were out of this world.
from the 124th floor of khalifa tower looking at the fountain
beach on christmas morn

at the camel races