Sunday, December 18, 2016

Doing Al Dhafra

judging pens from the grandstand
Yesterday, I went with some friends to check out the Al Dhafra Festival (famous for the camel beauty pageant) and I highly recommend the
experience! I'd read that you could find the festival by plugging the coordinates to the Tilal Liwa hotel into your GPS but I didn't realize just how close it is to the hotel which can be spotted as you drive to and from the main event spaces. There are also the following coordinates from the festival brochure: N23*33'44.01 E53*45'4.00 One way or another, you should aim for the purpose-built Heritage Souk- it's pretty easy to spot as flags announcing the festival lead toward it- there's a paved parking lot which stands out from all the high-activity stuff going on on random dirt/ sand roads on the way- and a couple of towers making it resemble a fort.

Enter the central courtyard and look lost! Look like a visitor! It seems you'll likely be approached by a tour guide wearing a badge on a red lanyard. If you're not approached, seek one out. We had a weird experience with a newbie tour guide at first who didn't seem to know what to do with us so it took a bit of time for us to hook up with the program. We wandered around the souk looking at some nice handicraft products- including some baskets that I vaguely regret not buying, they'd be nice for hauling camping or beach gear- and we checked out the classic car show before wandering toward the grandstands where we thought the beauty contest stuff seemed to be scheduled.

umm. not sure we're supposed to sit here...
We entered the backside of a grandstand, climbing a set of stairs which revealed camels in pens out front, and in the stands, all local guys seated not in anything so pedestrian as bleachers, no they were all sitting in stepped rows of gilt armchairs. It looked VVIP, like we had wandered in somewhere we shouldn't be. We backed out and tried the next entrance and at first thought it was the same deal, but no, here we spotted a few other touristy types in the fancy chairs, including my friend (and boss) from Abu Dhabi. She told me about how she'd been met by a tour guide who took her down to the camel pens and over to a royal family camp for lunch!  We grabbed some seats and started to chat up our neighbor who
actually, we CAN sit in the golden armchairs with the local guys
turned out to be a guy filming for the BBC so watch out, maybe you'll spot the festival on the international news channel. Here's where we connected with the guys with the red lanyard badges.

hump bling!
They took us down into the pens out front and explained a bit of the beauty pageant business. The camels in the pens that day were being considered for their appearance of strength and muscles. So far as I could tell they were being judged as racing camels but judged on their look rather than performance. Our guy pointed out a camel that had been shaved and said that she won't win. If  you shave them, it has to be long enough in the past that it's all grown in and natural looking. I was reading as well that the camels are checked and eliminated from competition if there's evidence that they've had lip injections! Floppy lips are good but they'd better be naturally floppy, no flop-enhancing drugs allowed! He told us about the buying and selling of winners that goes on every night on Million Road. Later we saw the back up of cars and had we planned/ known better, we could have come on an evening where we could stay late enough to go down and watch the buying and selling of camels for millions of dirham. Our guy told us about an American lady who had bought and sold one winning camel and made a tidy profit. I envisioned her taking her purchased camel home to a farm or something for training or at least grooming, but no, she did her buying and selling in one or two days
camel spit hair do
from the sounds of it. The camels were decked out in hump bling and necklaces. Winners later would be draped in a special blanket and I read that there's also a handicraft competition to make the best camel blanket for the final winner of the whole festival. Daily winners get SUVs and skyrocketing values on their camels in case they want to sell. Or if they'd rather keep their winners, they can also charge stud or breeding fees but not to members of their own extended family/ tribe. These camels all seemed friendly and into being photographed. They'd nuzzle our hands or hair with floppy lips and call out with some pretty fantastical sounds.

After a bit, we headed back to the grandstand and made plans to meet up with our guide in a bit to go to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan's camp. He's the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and, according to the brochure, the patron of the festival. First we watched the Feathered Saluki Beauty Contest- new this year! Saluki's are Arabian dogs that look a lot like greyhounds. We obviously don't know anything at all about judging Saluki beauty because our top pick was eliminated right off. Oh well. There are competitions on other days for the best dates, the best date packing, falcon beauty contests, Arabian horse racing, and, last but not least, the sour milk (laban) competition!

Speaking of sour milk, we were getting hungry and were drawn to an enormous BBQ smoker. Big enough, it turns out, to smoke huge hunks of camel if need be. This was less of a local thing, I learned it was owned by an Aussie and the BBQ guy was from North Carolina, but I did have a taste of really excellent camel meat that he told me still had about 3 hours left in the smoker.  It turned out we shouldn't have ordered food just then, if I were going to suggest an approach to others I'd say arriving at the festival in the afternoon around 2-3pm like we did is pretty good and if you want to try some excellent camel meat, maybe check out the BBQ but just get one serving to share among a few people because there's more food ahead!
camp entrance

majlis tent
We followed a host/ guide to the Sheikh's camp but they will also drive you if you prefer. Talk about glamping! There was a giant majlis where we were served coffee and tea and dates while traditional dancers performed in the courtyard. Seems that there was henna on offer over in the ladies only section but since we were a mixed group, we were in the main area. We were enjoying the dancing and sunset light, the big campfire and a steady supply of tea when one of the men invited us to stay for dinner at 7:30pm, a few hours away. As we had a long drive, we had to tell
inside majlis tent
him we couldn't stay. Then, after a moment he said, "come, eat."

We were led into a tent with carpets, fountains, tables and more gilded chairs, they sat us in front of giant silver tureens full of lamb stew, a sweet bread dish that was kind of like dry dessert stuffing and that I really liked, there were fatayer (stuffed pastry things) and fried sweet dough balls, crepe like things, and a dish called harees (kind a thick gravy/ savory pudding) that i am not a fan of. it was explained that local ladies made all the food and that it's the late afternoon meal, not dinner.

afternoon meal set up
The sun set, the fire was fed, lights came on making the camp twinkle. It was time for us to leave because of the 2.5-3 hour drive ahead. It had been a surreal experience being treated as a VIP guest but also as a tourist at the same time, enjoying access and free, delicious food in a way that had us interacting with locals on one level but also just spectating as total outsiders at this very local event. Strange and wonderful and if I weren't headed off on a trip in a few days, I might consider going back on a day when I could stay for dinner, or when I could go watch some camel buying and selling on Million Road. I'd talk to the guys with winning camels, ask them how they came to have winners- any special feed or grooming? I'd learn more about how they pick the winners and see if I couldn't be around to try my hand at a little camel milking. People we met seemed proud of the cultural event and proud of their heritage, happy to talk about it and show us a taste of that famous Bedouin hospitality.

traditional dancing

camp fountains, of course

the dancers dine with us, late afternoon meal

twinkling camp

other camps passed as we were leaving the festival

I found this video of the festival from a few years ago- the gal who is featured in it annoys me a little, she can slip into being patronizing and doesn't seem to totally get some of the Arabic humor because she doesn't bother to get stuff translated, at least not for the viewers- but she has some great footage of stuff i didn't get to see like the vet area where they check for doping and all!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Here comes the bride

Quite unexpectedly, I had the chance to attend an Emirati wedding a few weekends ago. 'Reception' probably does a better job of describing the event. 'Wedding' calls to mind a kind of ceremony with vows and an officiant. That part of things happens privately, at another time completely. There is a contract signed by the bride and groom, usually some family help set the terms, and there's an imam (like a priest) to make it official. The thing I went to is the public party which can happen quite a bit later than the contract signing (weeks, months) and for most of the "wedding" men and women are celebrating separately.

Maybe I should jump back to how I came to be at the wedding of a young lady I've never met. The bride is a ZU student, an advisee of my friend and neighbor, Jess. Jess had plans to to take another colleague, Yulia, and they stopped by on their way around 9:30/ 10 in the evening- things start late compared to most wedding celebrations in the US. Learning that I hadn't yet been to a local wedding, they insisted I throw on a dress and come along. No chance to glam it up and when we got there, I felt decidedly dowdy. But is this rude? Jess bringing a random  plus 2 to the celebration? Apparently not. The dinner (at 11pm-ish) was family style, a heaping excess of biryani and more than enough kebabs. Seats weren't going to be a problem in the hall. We were actually seated relatively front and center. I guess there's some cachet to having your teacher come to your wedding and if she brings friends, bonus! The more the merrier, demonstrates how many people want to celebrate with you. 

couch on the stage where the bride wound up
The hall - a place for weddings and other events- had tables around a stage and on the stage, a white couch sat amidst faux trees covered in cherry blossoms. As soon as we were seated, waitstaff came with trays, offering tiny cookies or chocolates and a seemingly unending array of beverage courses: karak tea (chai), mint tea, heba hunbra (a custardy drink with some sort of seeds, like chia or something), strawberry milk, Arabic coffee, black tea, pistachio drink (milky and sweet)... There were also appetizers on the tables when we got there- salads, dips- and ladies milling about, talking, visiting, and dancing.

It is the current custom and fashion for most Emirati women to wear abayas away from home. Some
milky pistachio drink
of our students let their abayas flop open at school revealing jeans,and long sleeve T shirts or maybe leggings or pants that look suspiciously like PJs with a tunic or something. Fairly modest clothing even under the abaya at least in terms of coverage. Apparently for a wedding, all bets are off! The ladies were in formal club wear, skin tight, cleavage-showing evening gowns. Make up and hair, done to perfection. One especially striking fashionista had a gown that was tea length or longer in back but cut up shorter in front revealing a gorgeous henna pattern down her shins that looked like exotic stockings. These were the younger and almost middle aged guests. The grandmas and older aunties wore caftan-like dresses with traditional colorful trim designs made of braided metallic thread. A few ladies just wore everyday abayas too, but most seemed to use this as an opportunity to dress up.

So around the time dinner made it to all the tables, the already loud constant music went up a few notches to signal that the bride was coming out. She wore a poufy white dress with a big train and took mincing steps to the stage while professional photographers snapped pictures. She made her way to the couch on stage where they arranged the dress around her for more photos. Then guests- friends, sisters, aunties, Jess- took turns going up to sit beside her on the couch for a bunch of pictures. There seemed to be a bit of a pecking order as to who went up for their photo with the bride first, second third... Some of the bride's fellow students came and took Jess up when it was a good time for her to go. 
tea, cola, strawberry milk with gelatin bubbles

After about an hour of this, there was another swell in the music and the DJ (who must have been behind a curtain where he couldn't see the ladies but could be heard) shouted Hamid! Hamid! Hamid! (seems this was the groom's name) Nearly every woman in the place grabbed up their abaya and shayla (hair covering) and threw it on- all the glitter and skin covered in a flash! A couple of women arranged an elaborate veil- more like a hood really- over the bride's hair and face. And then the groom came in escorted by about 5 other men. Maybe his father, some brothers or friends? Photographers took a million pictures and grandmas and aunties, older women, tossed fistfuls of 5 and 10 dirham notes (about $1.50 and $3 values) in the air and the kids there went crazy collecting them. Then all of the guys except the groom left and the bride's veil was removed. The couple held hands and together used a small sword to cut the wedding cake. The old ladies tossed more money in the air for the kids and more photos were taken.

The groom is in brown- photos of the men were no problem
The taking of photos was interesting. I don't have very many because I'd been warned, it's not appropriate. There seemed to be a bit of a divide. The table in front of us included about 5 younger women who were not shy about snapping lots of pictures of the bride and each other. When one swung her camera around to our table- there was a speedy reaction. One woman pulled her shayla over her face and held up her hand to block it, another yelled at the young lady, a third walked over to the young photographer and scolded her somewhat intensely. Probably one of the most interesting things I witnessed was one of the photo gals took a snap of the bride and groom holding hands and in the picture, she captured their outfits, but she cut their heads off in the picture. Her friends liked her shot so much, they were taking pictures of her picture on her phone. My best guess was that this is a way to share photos of the dress without being disrespectful or oversharing face and hair which are kept more private.

Fairly quickly after the cake, the bride and groom walked out of the hall holding hands and setting off on their adventure together. Abayas came back off for some, there was a bit more dancing, but the action was basically over at that point. I think there were another few beverages on offer, but the party was wrapping up. We danced our way out the door and that was that!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bucket List

I started on my 2015 holiday letter on my way to Germany for the UAE's National Day long weekend in early December. In case you missed it, my 4 day trip to check out the Christmas markets in Munich turned into a 6 week long stay in the hospital. It appeared to be simple appendicitis at first but turned out to be a much more serious and complicated ruptured colon. I'm recovered now but I was there right through the Christmas and New Year's holidays and I never got around to completing my letter and sending holiday cards but I liked where I was going with it so I thought I'd pick up where I left off and make it a blog post...

So... Happy Holidays!
Now that I've passed the halfway point of my contract, I get asked a lot about how long I think I might stay. "Not sure"  is my answer but I'm always living as though time is slipping away, I don't want to save my bucket list items for a rush at the end. This year (2015) has included some Dubai-life bucket list items starting with ringing in the New Year watching the fireworks shot off the world's tallest building from my comfy and traffic-free apartment balcony. It's the Times Square of the eastern hemisphere and I can enjoy it from the guest bed.

When my sisters came to visit a few weeks later, we went to the Emirates Palace which is a tres swanky hotel in Abu Dhabi famous for serving gold cappuccinos, There's a dramatic shot of the Emirates Palace in the movie Fast and Furious 7 as well. So yeah, we drank some gold dust and then you know we checked the next couple of days to see if it was still glittery post-digestive tract. the answer is nope, it's not.

Dubai does things the largest/ tallest/ fastest and in this case, most expensive in the world! I'm talking about the World's Cup of horse racing, largest prize- won by a sheik who turned around and donated it. No local betting but there were plenty of people wagering online in the UK and there were hats! I went with my friend Amanda and we made our hats. Well, OK, I made mine. There were some pretty amazing hats on display, it was quite the scene.

I had dinner in the dark- an experience at a place called Noire- it felt very Dubai to me though I know they host similar events in other cities. I guess because, like Dubai, it was a bit artificial but also kind of genuine and it was a lot of fun. Artificial in construct- we were escorted into a pitch black room by waitstaff wearing nigh vision goggles. We felt around for our utensils and water glasses. They brought each course, with a wine pairing for those who drink and then genuine flavors and textures took center was disorienting to start but we adapted pretty quickly. After the meal, we came back into the light and met with the chef to review what we'd had. I didn't guess the snails in the carrot soup, I kept thinking they were maybe unusual scallops. We also got to go back into the dining room trying out the night vision goggles.
our waiter at Noire

I was in the UAE for a bit of Ramadan in 2015. I wrote that up here. I didn't know before I experienced it that that was on my bucket list. What makes an experience bucket-y for me? i guess it has to be either one of a kind or especially iconic. It should capture something of the essence of a place or moment in time.

I've now been a couple of times to sunset drinks at the rooftop lounge at Bab al Shams Desert Resort- not that the lounge is so original or fantastic- but the whole business of plonking a luxury resort down in the desert is so wonderful and oasis-y and gets to the essence of the Arabian peninsula's long history of hospitality in a harsh environment.. Still to-do on my bucket list is a splurgy overnight, maybe at one of the resorts where each room has a private pool and a dune view stretching away. Maybe I'll overnight at the Qsr al Sarab resort- the one in the Liwa desert, an area called the Empty Quarter.

I made it to the Empty Quarter in 2015- high on my list- for the first, but not last time. And even made it to the resot but only for breakfast, not for the whole luxury experience. This trip was about the desert. This is where they filmed the desert planet scenes in the latest Star Wars movie. This is where the UAE's tallest dunes are. This is the scenery you think of when you think of the Arabian desert.We spotted gazelle, heard little

fly tracks
mice or gerbils, saw tracks of lots of critters. The "track" of a housefly landing on the sand is surprisingly beautiful.

I tend to work too long on these posts, trying to cover too much at once so I'll wrap it up now and just keep working my way through my remaining UAE/Dubai bucket list items...

Monday, April 11, 2016

Matters of Life and Death

piles of foil wrapped chocolates to bring to a new mom
Those of you who know about my holidays in a Munich hospital may think, based on the title, that this post will be about that. Actually, I wanted to write a little about my secondhand experiences of how families, friends, and even, now and then, the Nation, deal with those most major experiences- life and death- here in my host country.

First birth. A couple of colleagues and friends have had babies in the 2 years I've been here. Both locals and ex-pats. I hosted showers for a few of those ex-pats last fall. When I asked around to see if there was any similar local tradition of hosting a party for the mom to be or parents in advance of the birth, I learned the answer was no. And I got the sense, though no one explicitly said it, that it might be seen as premature or even flaunting your luck to celebrate before the birth. Now after the birth, like right after the birth, in the hospital, it's another story. While in the US I think the norm is to let the new parents be alone or with just a small collection of close family in the hospital after the exhausting but exhilarating ordeal, the norm here is to flock to the hospital bedside of mom and baby and to come bearing chocolates. Giant, pretty piles of foil wrapped chocolate! You can find these pyramids of be-ribboned sweets at chocolate shops or some grocery stores as well. And now is when the new mom is lucky if she is close to her sisters or female cousins or someone who can take on the job of making sure all of the many visitors are offered food and small mementos celebrating baby- like wedding favors. The craft stores have supplies to make these on your own or, I saw this bouquet of lace covered blue baby bottles each with a few Jordan almonds in the same section as the gift platters of chocolates, near the florist in the grocery store.

Then death. Last fall, the UAE suffered a tragic loss when over 40 soldiers serving in Yemen were killed at one time in a munitions explosion caused by Houthi rebel air strikes. Remember this is a small country if we're talking about Emirati citizens- under 1.5 million, about the same number of people who live in San Diego- and all of the soldiers were Emirati citizens. The country felt the loss keenly. A period of public mourning was declared with flags flown at half mast , public events and celebrations cancelled, and radio stations compelled to switch regular broadcasting to either recitations from the Quran or quiet, contemplative, classical music. I'd first run into the radio programming change when the Saudi king passed away last January. I thought someone had been in my car messing with the radio buttons at first. We were without DJs, commercials and pop music for. 3 days that time and I couldn't really see how it connected to mourning.  But then last fall, the mourning period continued for over 2 weeks and I found myself thinking of the soldiers every time I got in the car and heard the lack of regular radio. It actually was quite effective in causing me to stop a moment and consider their service or their families or the impact of their loss on the country. I think the quiet nature of the music that played may have even made me drive a little less impatiently. The newspapers were full of reports, the country's leaders, the Crown Prince and the VP visited every single family who had lost a soldier. Not just the newspapers, but colleagues in the library lost cousins and talked about the rulers coming to their homes. And the families rallied, just like for births. They come, the cousins and brothers and sisters, kids and elders. They come and settle in for a few days to help keep the family company.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Bargain hunting in the Gold City

I'm the weirdo visiting the secondhand shop instead of the designer stores or custom tailor shops, I get more excited about the crafting supplies at Daiso, the funky Japanese dollar store (or, since it Is Dubai, the 7Dhs or $2 store), than about the latest Micheal Kors handbag. This is never more true than during Halloween season! I take it as a personal challenge to see what I can craft or recycle to make things hauntingly delicious without breaking the bank.
daiso variety
For my costume this year (well, last year, 2015, I mean), I wanted something with a regional flavor. I've long been charmed by the uniforms of the Emirates Airline flight attendants and they are super iconic and recognizable around here. My apartment tower and the building next to me actually house a ton of Emirates employees, my neighbor is a pilot with them. So I decided I would be an Emirates flight attendant but that I'd zombie-it-up to keep it Halloween-y. The hat was the most important part.And one of the the most challenging to create. I made it from a cardboard lid to a cheese round, toilet paper and paper towel tubes, red felt and a swatch of gauzy white fabric. The red felt I got at Daiso for 7 dhs (about $2) and the gauzy fabric from a Satwa fabric store, I can't remember for sure, but I think it was 5-10 dhs (less than $3).

Before I get into the rest of my bargain hunting, let me tell you about Daiso! Apparently there are a few Daiso shops in the US in CA and WA, but they're mostly in Japan, South Korea and the Middle East. Nearly everything in the store sells for 7 Dhs and the "everything" that you can buy there is dizzying; disposable underwear, tiny erasers shaped like sushi, cat toys and traditional craft supplies like felt and ribbons and then things I re-purposed into craft items like cheap plastic gloves for food service workers and masking tape. Daiso is great!
disposable gloves and masking tape

Next I needed to find a beige suit or at least a blazer. I'd read about the Dubai Center for Special Needs charity shop in the Karama neighborhood.The webpage listed their usual weekday hours and then included a line that read " Please note that on the first Friday of every month we also have a Sale at the shop from 9am to 12:30pm. " Coincidentally it was coming up on the first Friday of the month and I thought what better time to try to find a parking spot in Karama than the usually sleepy Friday morning (remember our Friday mornings are kind of like Sunday mornings in predominantly Christian countries.) Turns out I was right on about parking but I hadn't expected the crowd I met inside the shop. There was a line wrapped around the entire first floor and there wasn't really room for a line between overstuffed racks of cloths and kids toys and household items.The people in line had trash bags stuffed to the top with items for purchase. I struggled to find a cast off tan blazer that wasn't South East Asian sized (aka petite) finally had some success with one that would work well enough, I
in line at the charity shop-out of my league
was going to tear it and smear fake blood all over it after all. The marked price was 15 Dhs (under $5) but after spending easily half an hour in line behind trash bag hauling shoppers, I learned that the first Friday sale was everything in the store for half price  so I got the blazer for 7.5 Dhs. Here I thought that the charity shop always enjoyed this frenzied buying and that they must be bringing in some nice funds. Turns out, as I learned form the talk around me in line, that there are pros who go from secondhand sale, to flea market, to bag sales, buying and selling, wheeling and dealing. It was an education in a whole life in the city that doesn't show on the surface. I might make my way back to the store on a non-sale day to be able to actually check out the goods. They had some amazing Indian saris dirt cheap that could be cut up to make fantastic pillows or something. As for the first Friday scene, I was out of my bargain hunting league with that crowd!

the chubby cucumber-o-lantern

Next year I'm excited to check out a lead I got on visiting the wholesale Fruit and Vegetable market for cheap local pumpkins. Due to a lack of affordable options in the grocery stores, I've spent the last 2 years carving all manner of fruit and veg. This year my colleague Melanie picked up something at a Satwa corner market that looked a bit like a gourd on the surface but once we started cutting, I swear that thing was a mutant, chubby cucumber based on its smell and the look of the seeds and inner flesh. Once again, the "pumpkins" posed on the balcony- though after the photo shoot, it was into the fridge with them until party time because if they sit out, even in the AC they tend to droop, rot and then turn to liquid!

In general I find that stuff in Dubai is priced on par with or more expensive than in the US but I've heard it's quite the bargain compared with prices in both Hong Kong and mainland China. It's all a matter of perspective. And then there's the quality and prestige issues at play as well. It's one thing to buy a secondhand, ill fitting blazer for a costume and another entirely to try thrift store shopping in earnest in Dubai. It's fun to dabble and to learn about the option though.