Friday, October 31, 2008

To the lights and towns below faster than the speed of sound

Halloween in Dubai was something I wasn't sure existed, but indeed it does.

The gourds called "Pumkins" (sic) here are large, mottled cream and green things, generally from Iran or India or Australia, not my idea at all of what a pumpkin should be.

So it was with much delight that I heard that one of the local grocery chains was planning to import American pumpkins. I went in early and sure enough, a pile of gorgeous orange glowing orbs awaited. Thomas was tickled "Pumpkin! Pumpkin Mommy!!!

We purchased the almost 7 lb one above for 62.50 Dhs, $17.25. (Mike said "You spent how much on a pumpkin?") At the counter the produce person had to call over two other people to figure out how to charge for it; I had gotten the first one. Despite its long journey, it still had a stem.

Visitors to our home would exclaim over it, either "What is that?" or "Omygod a PUMPKIN!" The pumpkin was patted, stroked, and loved.

Rani was appalled when she found out we intended to carve rather than eat it. She tried to tell me no madam several times. I'm already in trouble with her every time I clean out the refrigerator. Now I know to save bread for her birds and any unspiced meat for her cats and not to throw away any containers that she can reuse for carrying food to the many beneficiaries of her cooking on her little hot plates.

Bethy must have asked 20 times a day, "when are we going to carve the pumpkin?" which increased as we got closer to the day. She drew several designs for the face, finally settling on one that was deemed scary enough. We taught Thomas how to say "pumpkin guts" and the two of them scaped with spoons and pulled out mush with gusto.

There weren't too many choices when it came to costumes for the kids. Thomas ended up wearing his Superman PJs and in a stroke of sheer luck I found an Incredibles costume for Bethy at an expat's garage sale. Halloween candy was exhorbitantly priced. Most of the parents I talked to in the UAE spent much time asking each other if they'd heard of how Halloween works here. No one seemed to know.

It wasn't all that different, fewer participants.

I can tell you one thing: this was the first Halloween that not only did the kids not have to wear puffy winter coats over their costumes, but I was worried they might get overheated!

It was a sweltering night, and we traipsed along the streets with a group of friends, (us, 2 princesses and a ninja, respectively), overhearing some of the other mums on their mobiles trading inside information on which villas were giving the best handouts.

Bethy was amazed at the stars. ( look Mom!)
I don't think I've ever seen stars on Halloween either...don't ever recall a break in the clouds.

As soon as the kids were wound up with anough sugar to send them into the stratosphere, we called it a night and went home to take care of any trick-or-treaters who showed up at our house. The carved pumpkin did us proud, glowing scarily and adorably and immediately netting results.

Bethy stationed herself in her little chair right by the door, eagerly awaiting the bell. She and Thomas thought handing out candy to kids was just this side of heaven. The night went on and Thomas (and Mike) had to be put to bed, but Bethy waited unwaveringly by the door. Finally she went and got two chairs, a blanket and a pillow, and said that she'd "just rest for a minute, I'll hear the doorbell when someone comes..."

I waited until she was well and truly asleep, then sneaked outside to blow out the candle in the pumpkin and bring it inside. Alas, it had fallen prey to pumpkin smashers, and was scattered down our street. I picked up the carnage, so as to not have traumatised children in the morning. This helped explain the sharp decline in the numbers of treaters.

I carried what Mike deemed our "Incredibly Exhausted" little girl up to bed and tucked her in. Superman was snoring softly in the other room.

Bethy had said, for the first time ever, with starry eyes, clutching her treat bag, I like it here in Dubai I want to stay forever.

Now that is Incredible!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Don't Worry, Be Happy

The other day I was outside in the blazing middle of the afternoon, hanging out laundry to dry as fast as I possibly could on the drying rack up on our balcony. Bethy was at school, and Thomas was happily playing trains inside. I had the sliding glass door closed, since the hot air enters very quickly. You can always tell if a door or window is open anywhere in the house.

Sometime between my hanging up the socks and picking up the hamper to bring inside, Thomas stealthily locked the door.

This was a bad thing. You can imagine. Thomas thought it a great game, running back and forth between the two glass doors to the balcony, making faces, peek-a-boo-ing, giggling and watching Mommy sweat.

Stay calm, I told myself, stay calm. Don't scare him away. Though it is very easy to pull down the handle and lock the door, it is not so easy to push it back up to unlock it. I began to calmly (outwardly) demonstrate what he needed to do to unlock the door. He put his little hands on the glass and pushed and pushed, pulled on the handle, tried his darndest, and then, like any two-year-old, lost interest.

OK, I thought, he'll come back. I pulled a almost-wet towel back off the rack and put it on my head, and sat down in the shade from the clothes still on the dryer rack. The concrete of the balcony was radiating heat, even in the shade. I sat there, keeping an eye on Thomas, who was at least staying close, and pondered my choices as the minutes ticked by and the sweat trickled down my neck and legs.

Kid in, Mommy out. Mommy feeling increasingly like a rotisserie chicken.

Even if I went Mommy extreme and dropped off the balcony, (in bare feet, of course), some 15-20 feet up, I'd still be locked out in our backyard. Even if I did that, scaled the garden wall and went around to our front door I'd still be locked out. Not good.

Inside, Thomas had discovered that I'd taken the protective cover off the 220 volt outlet and plugged in (but thankfully not turned on) the iron. He began to fiddle with what he calls the "ouchlet".

REALLY not good!!!

Pound pound pound went Mommy on the glass door.

Ah! A new wonderful game. Thomas abandoned the ouchlet for Mommy again, and I entreated him anew to push the handle up, please, please baby push the handle up.

Finally, after many tries, he did.

For locking Mommy out and letting her back in he got his choice of lollypops. ("Bop-bops") Hopefully he'll only get the idea that he's a good boy for listening!

Mommy will never again close the door all the way while she's outside. Lesson learned.

Thomas further distinguished himself by jumping on the glass of a still-wrapped 12"x35" frame from IKEA, placing it on the floor and leaping with abandon, ker-smash. Really a wonderful game; fortunately for him the nice folks at IKEA had wrapped it well enough that none of the broken glass penetrated the plastic wrapping and his little feet.

It's still a nice frame. You never heard Mike bellow as he did when he realised what Thomas was up to. Too late, the kid was already airborne.

Such a boy!

"What happen?" he said beguilingly, looking down at the shattered glass crunching beneath his feet in the millisecond before he was swooped up.

To give both candidates equal time, here is an "interview" that I did with Bethy. Thanks to our friend Cheyenne in Olympia, WA for the idea. You can read her interview with her 5-year old daughter here:

1. What is something mom always says to you? You need to get ready for school and eat breakfast.

2. What makes mom happy? Cards with a picture of a dragonfly like the one I drew for you.

3. What makes mom sad? Me not listening. (giggles when I tell her that was a good answer).

4. How does your mom make you laugh? Tickling. Remember when you did "I'm going to get you and THROW you on the ground and tickle you?"

5. What was your mom like as a child? I know. She was good. (For the record, I have not told her this!)

6. How old is your mom? Um, I don't know. Give me a hint. (Do you think I'm 10, 20, 30, 40, 50?) You're definitely not 40 because Daddy is 40. You're 20!

7. How tall is your mom? Very tall. Taller than me.

8. What is her favorite thing to do? Read. Play with her kids, me and my brother, play with the family.

9. What does your mom do when you are not around? You play with Thomas and give him a nap and lunch and take care of him and go to the store. When we're at Grandma's house(!) and Thomas is with Grandma too you go do things with Daddy (What kind of things?) Fun things, and we do fun things too, but with Grandma.

10. If your mom becomes famous, what will it be for? Winning a race!

11. What is your mom really good at? Running. You love to run. And reading me a story.

12. What is your mom not so good at? That's hard. (good answer, but came back to it). Reading in the dark when there's no light, and she's not so good at buying things. (can you explain that?) She sometimes doesn't have enough money to buy things.

13. What does your mom do for her job? A doctor. Remember you go to a work back at home and it's a doctor place? You work in whatever that's called and that's where I like to go.

14. What is your mom’s favorite food? Mushrooms. (OK, so I was thinking chocolate).

15. What makes you proud of your mom? What does that mean? (Something Mom does that makes you feel good inside) I like it when she reminds me to wear my clothes and go to school and reads me stories... (This monologue went on and on and on...)

16. If your mom were a cartoon character, who would she be? Elastigirl from the Incredibles.( the best fictional Mom EVER!) Dash too, that's a really good idea. He's a fast runner too.

17. What do you and your mom do together? We watch the Incredibles together, play games like tickle.

18. How are you and your mom the same? Curly hair!

19. How are you and your mom different? Um, um, (looking me over), you have bigger feet.

20. How do you know your mom loves you? Because she always tells me. (Awwwwwwww.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

...ready on the mark. Gonna try and take the pictures...(part 1)

Along the desert roads it is a big deal (for our family anyway) to spot four-legged creatures. Here are the best of the photos from this weekend:

Back home in the States I hear the World Series has been played, that you are in the throes of autumn, and that the air is crisp and cool. It's literally a world away for me. Two of you are, unsolicited, taking photos of the Pacific NW fall for me. What an incredibly thoughtful thing to do! I can't wait to see them.

Cool machine, get it runnin', ready to roll (part 2)

Mike (as you may have noticed in the post above) has a 4x4 SUV now. A Nissan Patrol. This is what the locals (Emiratis) drive, which is super great. You can't get these in the States. It's big and old and heavy and reliable. It has separate air conditioning in the back for the kids, a passable sound system, and a refrigerator built into the console box.

In other words, it is stinkin' awesome.

This is also good since my little white rental car decided it was time to go to the big car lot in the sky, signaling such with the engine light and leaking transmission fluid all over the place. The nice rental people came and took it away on a flatbed.

The Patrol also has a sunroof, as you can see.

We bought the Patrol from a German who'd maintained it well, and had it all set up for desert life. Mike gleefully reported back that on his drive home an Emerati had waved him in.

What?! Nobody waves you in here! Mike's new SUV is obviously a ticket to being in good with the locals. It even has a falcon on the tire cover.

We took it up the coast to Umm al Quain and had a great time just driving around with the kids.

First we saw a high powered 4 wheeler buggy zooming across sand dunes, buzzing around a camel who must have been very annoyed. (Though short of biting, how can a camel express displeasure?) The driver left off his camel heckling long enough to bounce down to us, spraying sand, to ask Mike if he and his babies would like to go for a ride and take pictures. Mike politely demurred.

The camel took the opportunity to plod sneakily and quickly away.

(You can see him in part 1 of the post).

Later along the road we saw another SUV stuck in the sand and went over to give them water and see if we could help them out. The police arrived shortly thereafter, (the fellow on the right is one of them, and you can see the police truck in our rearview mirror...I was trying to be discrete. That does not say Coca-Cola on the side, there!) and there was a lot of discussion and fruitless pushing around of sand. We were just leaving when a semitruck showed up, providing a huge length of chain, and we figured the stuck car was as good as out.

credit and thanks to Mike for the great photograph!

Out here, where the desert looks as I'd dreamed it would, the sand blows over the roads, and without constant maintenance, drifts form. I imagine roads get lost now and then. It was nice to have a vehicle that humped and slithered nicely over the sand without hesitation. (You can see the path of this road if you follow the stop signs.) We didn't try any true off-roading, since the sand goes from being hard-packed to soft and deep with no warning, and it would have been extremely foolish.

The kids thought this was a great adventure. All four of us kids, big and little, actually.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Down by the schoolyard...

Last week I went in for Bethy's first teacher's conference in the Middle East. I was a little bit nervous, figuring this puts me up there with VP nominees for foreign relations and negotiations experience.

One of the very first things her teacher said to me, her eyes tired and speech rehearsed, was "This is the classroom, and what I care about is what happens in here. As far as I'm concerned all politics stay out in the hall."

I sympathise with her; there have been several kindergarten parents who've tried to recruit me to their camp, complaining endlessly about how much they've paid to send their little darlings to the school, and how distressed they are that the school is not completed yet. I've managed to slip away from their grasp. Some of the major complaints are: cost of uniforms (hel-ooo, you sent your child to the region's most expensive school, what did you expect?), that the school is in the middle of the desert and runs on generators and has to have water trucked in every day and waste trucked out. How they didn't notice the whole "desert" thing when they came to sign their offspring up in the first place is a beyond me. Perhaps they were jetlagged at the time, we'll never know. In their defense, on the school website it shows various very realistic computer-generated images of the completed school in a well established neighborhood, so if they just sent their lackeys to do the legwork, this might have been a surprise.

Bethy's favorite parts of the school are the spiral staircase over the pools surrounded by flowers in the main foyer, (pictured above in a real photograph) the pinpoint lights in the ceiling that change color, and the Planetarium.

I told Claire (Mrs Potts) that I really didn't care as long as the school has lights and when the children turn on the taps safe water comes out. I said that I find the school beautiful, understand that it will be done in time, and that Bethy and the kids are happy is all I'm interested in. She brightened up immediately, and we had a pleasant chat over tea.

One of the things we did was to go over a sampling of Bethy's work. All of the students write a story in their diaries Sunday when they return to school after the weekend. Bethy is doing an amazing job of it, with carefully drawn pictures and sounded-out, lengthy stories, not unlike my own. She even had one with pictures describing my runs at Safa Park. She drew me smiling, so that's a good thing.

The diaries will be given to the students in a bound book at the end of the year so they can look back at what they've been up to. I thought this was a great idea. Apparently I was all sappy since I even had a little sniffle at the thought.

Claire said all the things I expected; Bethy is smart, friendly, pretty good most of the time, and talks too much.

Yup, that's Bethy.

Bethy gets on the bus at 7:05 AM Sunday-Thursday and school starts at 8:30. I hope she doesn't ride the bus that whole time, but probably. The website describes the school as being "5 minutes from the Springs" (where we live). Perhaps by helicopter it is, but I haven't gotten that flyer from the school yet. Bethy is friends with most of the kids on the bus, though one is being frightful and I had to ask the bus helper to please not sit Bethy next to this older kid since ours is coming home with black-and-blue marks and broken skin from pinching. They agreed.

I didn't mind too much when she came home after being decorated by another older student. The bus helper shook his head on this day, saying Problem, is big problem. I decided that pens are a no-no on the bus until further notice. The door-to-door service is nice; not having to wait in the heat and getting to shove in that last bite of toast is good. Unless of course your mother is pitching you out the kitchen window...

I have finally mastered the door, and now am rarely fighting with it for more than a minute. I need two hands and a knee to get it open, though.

School goes until 3:30, now that Ramadan is over and they have returned to the usual longer hours. (hours of operation are called "timing" here). During Ramadan the school "canteen" was closed, and any of the older Muslim children who had elected to fast were given a special area to weather it out while the other kids ate.

During Ramadan, after sunset we'd driven past a McDonalds all decorated with strings of lights for the holiday. Bethy said "Oh, look! That McDonalds is happy because the day is over and we can go eat there now!"

Bethy's day starts with math, then has Arabic twice a week, poetry, music class or PE, and there will be swimming time once the pool is finished. (So some parents are unhappy with buying a school swimsuit and/or with the pool being unfinished. Whiners. I bought the gym clothing without whimpering once.) The other learning times are "Taskboard", "Inquiry", and "Discovery Time". That last really means "The End of the Day when all the little kids are tired and couldn't be organized if their lives depended on it so they get turned loose in the classroom to do whatever activity they like." Bethy generally chooses to paint for this part. Messy, messy uniform results, despite the painting smocks I know are provided. She's an enthusiastic artist.

The Arabic is a required subject, taught in all schools in the UAE. Bethy is loving it. She wrote Arabic "B" after Arabic "B", in purple and pink, of course. She tries out her new words on Rani, who speaks Arabic as well as English and Sinahlese (and probably more I don't know about yet.) The two of them have a great time.

There are fewer than 20 students in her class, many of whom have parents in the various Embassies, so while lessons are taught in English, the curriculum is drawn schoolwide from international sources. Once a week the kindergarteners get to go to the Elementary Library. This is a big deal for Bethy, choosing and checking out a book all by herself. This week she selected a Maisy Mouse book. Here is what she said about it: "I saw this book about Maisy and I knew Thomas would love it, so I put back my book and got this one for him instead."

Now, that, my friends, is a darn good big sister.

Music class, is, of course big, and she comes home and teaches me new songs on a regular basis. The words are no problem, but she has a hard time making me understand the tune, unless the piece is based on, say, "Happy Birthday" or "Frère Jacques". That she carries a tune at all makes me happy. That she gets to play with castinets is pretty cool too.

The kids do go outside for recess, and Bethy has taken to bringing home the tiny white seashells she finds scattered thoughout the sand. One day the kids found a dead bird, and the construction men carefully buried it with what Bethy described as proper reverence.

Twice a week the kids stay after for another hour, for elective after-school activities. For this session Bethy chose gymnastics and chess. Chess, because she and Mike like to play. We love that our 5-year-old can set up the board and explain the moves and her strategies. On these days I drive out to pick her up, which I like since it keeps me a bit more up-to-date with what is happening at the school.

So she's adjusted well to life in the Middle East. 81 degree mornings have been deemed "freezing, Mom!" (she put on a sweater vest over her uniform) and here is what she said while building with blocks the other day:

"See, here's the car and it drives around and around the roundabout, and then errrrr, it parks in the street!"

The girl knows her stuff!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no no...

Not only am I addicted to running, but like any good addict I'm getting my friends hooked too. So far I've gotten 5 folks to go along with me to do the Saturday night Predictor Run: from left to right Andre, April (Katrina and Graham, Bethy and me) Anya, Pavil, Dalia (and Misiu). These new Road Runners are smarter than I am in that they do the 1-lap, though Dalia is showing signs of pending insanity by eyeing the 2-lap hungrily. Note also that I am the shortest runner in this group. Sigh.

On this night I had sort of skipped the marathon training with the Creek Striders the day before. On the first lap I was "hanging" with another woman who beats the pants off me every time, but this time we chatted for a good half a length, until even the prospect of company couldn't keep me at the pace. At the 1-lap mark my time was way too fast. I figured I was done for, that I'd crash and burn the second lap, and as one does, kept going anyway.

A ways into that second lap I ended up running next to an 8-time marathoner in his 50s from the UK who was just visiting Dubai and came by for a workout. Again I pushed myself to keep up with the chatter, until I finally had to let him go as well. Finish line, pushed myself for a pretty ending (after all, there was an audience of the folks I'd somehow talked into coming to do this!) and on the screen: a time of 34:35. You may remember that it was only the week before Graham had been pleased and surprised by my breaking the 36 minute mark. I seriously thought my new time was a mistake! (This is an 8:11 minute mile, for those of you in the know).

Graham told me he wasn't "letting" me out of the Creek Striders training runs any more.

Regrouping with the runners I'd invited, I was excited to learn they'd all done a great job; everybody finished, and they were even smiling at the end, once they caught their breath.

Friday was my first "official" race here in Dubai (and I got there without getting lost and before it started this time!) a 10K, (6.1 miles). I met Graham there and planned to stick to him as well as I could since he's a veteran runner; not only do I enjoy his company and support, but he is also a great pace setter which keeps me from being an idiot and setting out too quickly, fueled by the adrenaline of the race atmosphere.

The race was held on the grounds of the 5 star resort Le Meridien Mina Seyahi, just west of our villa on the Arabian Gulf. (Persian Gulf, we call it in the USA). A beautiful early morning, nice at 83 F, 60% humidity. The horn sounded at 7 AM and nearly 220 runners hit the ground running.(Don't bother looking for me in the starting photo...neither tall enough nor to the front enough to be of notice) The course was set out onto the ocean on a bordering spit of land with a road that curved around the marina, then back around by the hotel, north then south then repeating the circuit three times all together.

During the first lap I was enjoying the ocean, the yachts, the palm trees and the skyline. A few hotel guests wandered out in their bathrobes to watch us, looking vaguely confused. The groundskeepers and lifeguards lined the course, interrupting their work to watch the nutcases racing. They bloomed with smiles whenever I grinned at them, and a few even clapped for us.

Graham and I ran without chatting, (a new experience for me) calling out occasional encouragement to other runners. By the second lap I was breathing hard, doing well on my favorite part, the little uphills, but laboring as we continued. Courses where you repeat the same route over and over can be mentally difficult, and I was no longer enjoying the scenery but keeping my eyes at a point on the ground ahead of me, working on keeping the cadence of my legs and breathing steady, thinking about technique and form.

This did not prevent Graham from blazing surely away from me (we had agreed to run our own races, and he took 4 minutes off his best 10K time from the last 3 he's run), nor did it prevent my developing double side-aches. My mouth was so, so dry, and my throat was on fire. At the water and Pocari station I grabbed one of each and stopped to stretch each side of my ribcage as I glugged down part of both drinks. As soon as I could I set out again for the third and final lap. As I did the winning runner flew over the finish line at an impressive 33 minutes.

The lap went by, and coming around the corner onto the final stretch, I began to speed up for a good strong finish, despite the heaviness in my legs. I'd been running alone, but I could hear someone coming up fast behind me, breathing hard with quick foot falls. I heard Graham calling my name in encouragement from the sidelines. I leaned forward and hoped for the best, trying to get the legs to give just a little bit more, sucking in air.

The other runner was running much faster than I, but I had a good lead on him. At the finish line, crossing the timing pads, he stuck out his chest and I flung out my foot with the timing chip on the shoe, and we received the exact same time of 50:57, finishing in the top half.

Nigel, the other runner, came up to me afterwards to chew over our accomplishment and let me know that I'd been his "mark"; apparently he'd been chasing me for several kilometers, trying to pass me.

Here is our reenactment of the last seconds:

Here is the reality: the looks on our faces that last milisecond are just priceless.

Once we'd recovered a bit, breathing and body temperatures returning to normal, we all decided that in actuality we'd enjoyed the run, (no, really!) and relaxed in post-race camaraderie. As we watched other runners finish, one man collapsed a few hundred yards from the finish line, much to our dismay. Apparently he hadn't been looking all that well and when one of the volunteers jogged out and offered him water his eyes rolled back into his head and he pitched forward. The police and ambulances came screaming onto the course, making it much more interesting for the remaining runners to get around the vehicles, flashing lights and urgent EMTs. A few of us (Americans and Indians) wandered back aways to see what was happening, while the unfailingly polite Brits kept their distance. While he was still lying on his stomach, his feet were moving ina natural seeming way, so it looked that he at the very least hadn't dropped dead, to our relief.

Every finisher received a medal, very cool, and as you can see, the race photographers did a great job. In this one photo alone I think there are maybe 7 or 8 nationalities represented. (Prize for the whitest legs---if there was such a prize--- goes to Natalie, no contest.)

That evening our family went to an outdoor party to welcome the new Road Runners of the season at Graham and Katrina's villa. Bethy loved the bouncy castle, Thomas chased their cats, and we all had a wonderful time trying and completely failing to eat through the mountain of food Katrina had prepared. (Thomas ate a bunch of unsafe ice from the drinks cooler as well, not such a good choice by him, so we're watching for gastrointestinal distress.) Graham got up and gave a speech about the Road Runners, including bringing up some of the very accomplished members and telling a bit about each of them, which was inspiring, to say the least.

Then, to my delight and embarassment, he brought me up to round out his presentation, introduced me and talked briefly about how I came here in the summer, how different the climate is here from Seattle but that I'm doing well and had earned a PB (personal best time) from the 10K.

Later, when pretty much everybody but us had long since gone home, I asked him about it: why put me, of all people, up there? He said, "Well, that's to show that nobody is special but everybody is."

I can live with that.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'm all shook up...

Mike has a great photo from his jobsite to share:

workplace hazard

According to the handler, it's some sort of sand viper; "yes, boss, it is poisonous".

Guess that's one of the reasons they wear those hard workboots, huh?

Along the lines of things that scare the hummus out of me, here is an idea for what I could go as for the perfect Halloween costume:

President Palin

Remember folks, you saw it here first.

(My apologies to any die-hard Republicans. It was too good not to share.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right...

I need to follow up on some back stories here...

Here (yes!) is one of the Persian carpets we bought in Masafi at the market. I wish you could feel how soft it is under your bare feet. Did you really think I wouldn't post a photo? That would have been just plain mean. That sofa the Thomas is sitting on houses a queen sized bed, by the way, for those of you inclined to come out and wiggle your toes on the silk carpet. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

You may remember that we'd had a skinny, dented, and unattractive refrigerator (due to its jarring turquoise-colored handle) delivered to us, and decided to return it. I went back to the Carrefour the last week of August to pick a different one and get the refund process started. The manager and his staff worked diligently on my problem and when he had an answer for me he called me on the mobile, found out I was still in the store, (it's a big store) and met me where I was in the toy section rather than to have me come back to the customer service counter. Now that's customer service!

When I went to our new house the to drop off some things, the workmen were grouting away on the floor, wonderful, and the refrigerator was gone. Earlier I had asked Matloob, the head handyman, if they would mind if the refrigerator company showed up to take away the fridge while they were there . "No problem, Madam, of course no problem."

The next morning I got a call. "Madam, I am calling about the refrigerator, we will come pick it up today."

"I thought you'd already come and gotten it. It's not there anymore." A flurry of conversation away from the phone and he returned "No, Madam, no, we have not gotten it, we are coming today, around 5 and 6, OK yes?"

Uh-oh. I called Mike. "Mike", I said, "I'm afraid Matloob might have misunderstood me and removed the refrigerator."

"I told you to use small words and short sentences!" he chided, trying to decide whether to laugh or be upset and deciding on both. We figured that it had been at least 12 hours and that there was about a 50% chance our slightly dented refrigerator had been sold to a very happy buyer. There was nothing to be done before talking to Matloob, a conversation I was not looking forward to. I was going to meet him at the villa and pay him today, so that, we supposed, would be the best time to ask about the fate of the refrigerator. In the background I could hear Mike's co-workers finding this situation pretty funny. Or perhaps it was just the expression on Mike's face that was sending them into fits of laughter.

I purchased some IKEA beds for the kids from a Scottish mother of four little ones who invited me in for particularly good coffee and told me that the only way she can survive the kids and Dubai are a cup of coffee once a day and the contents of her expensive wine chiller unit. Lynn bemoaned to me that her kids get grief when they visit Scotland for "sounding American", and that she gets accused of sounding Irish. They didn't to me, not a bit. They all sounded like they had light, pleasant Scottish accents. She told me one of the Americanisms the kids say is eraser instead of rubber. I laughed that Bethy has been watching Rubber Dubbers and says "rubbah dubbahs" and Thomas says "Heh-loooo" which he learned from the room guys, and sounds very much like Julia Childs with a chicken. We are all adding "yeh" to the end of our sentances now, as in, "Going to the store now, yeh."

Lynn's kids enjoyed munching digestive biscuits with Thomas and Bethy, which we in the US would call cookies. Her three older children were girls, aged 2-7, and My Little Pony again proved universal as the toy for little girls. Really, our diplomats should buy them in bulk and pass them out at opportune moments. Peace through Ponies.

Transaction completed, chat accomplished, coffee polished off, The kids and I excused ourselves and headed over to the new house to see what could be done about the refrigerator. I made as many "stay cool, chill out, deal with a potentially frosty situation" bad puns to myself as I could to distract from the dread creeping over me that I might be about to accuse someone of accidentally sort of stealing our appliance. Got to our villa, opened the door...and the refrigerator was there.

Who knew I could be so glad to see an unwanted, ill-fitting unattractive appliance?

The workmen had just moved it to goodness knows where to do the floors underneath and then had at some point put it back.

Matloob wasn't there, so I introduced myself and the kids to his workers. One tried to get over his obvious unease at speaking with me, asking whether I spoke Urdu. (Only Salaam aleekum; hello and Shukria; thank you, as of yet.) They soon excused themselves from the air conditioned house and went to eat cooked rice out of bags in the shade of our carport on the ground next to our car. I didn't mean to chase them out of the cool indoors, and tried several times to encourage them back inside, with no success.

Finally I had a good idea, got the key for the empty maid's quarters, and gave it to the more outgoing of the two of them, imploring him and his cohort to at least go into there, which does not connect to the house on the inside. This was an agreeable idea, and they seemed glad of it. Or perhaps they were just glad of a hidey hole away from the persistant, chatty, and unfathomable western woman. They sat just inside with the door open, eating their lunches and waiting for their boss Matloob to come fetch them.

When he arrived I told him they did good work and asked him to have his workers fix all of the flooring, walking about and showing them him the gaps in the floor that so displeased me. They joined him for the stroll, and started intoning, "gap, gap" with me as we walked the floors and I pointed.

I paid him 800 dirhams to have the two of them work at least 3 days to fix the floors, the equivalent of $218 USD.

The refrigerator people eventually came to pick up the refrigerator, after not showing up several times, and Mike took things into his own hands and went out, measurements in tow, to get a new one. "This one will fit," he cautioned, "but make sure they know to take the legs off, or it won't."

The refrigerator arrived...and it was too tall. Without the legs. There was a piece on the top in the back that stuck up another 5 inches or so which put it smack into the cupboards above. Damn. Send it back? Keep it? Criminy.

I had the nice delivery men, who assured me that a carpenter could make the necessary alterations with little trouble, put in in the corner of the dining room. Mike came home and threw up his hands.

Calling our landlord, Dr Arshad Haroon Toosy (he's a vet) in Al Ain, I told him our troubles. He balked at having carpenters come in.

It seemed the refrigerator was doomed.

Then, like the knight in shining armor that he is, (or at least an inventive engineer, which is in many ways superior...he doesn't clank when he walks, for instance) Mike figured out that the offending piece could be removed from the top of the refrigerator an relocated to the back, causing it to stick out a few more inches, perhaps, but now it fit.

If our lives came equipped with a soundtrack, Handel's Hallelujah would have rung out in full throat at this point.

In addition to the "Scottish" beds, I purchased a bookshelf from a German couple, a vacuum from a Brit, leather beanbags from another Brit, our livingroom furniture from a South African, and a desk from a woman who was born in India, and then lived in England and Australia. (now, she had a cool accent). I found all of these things online. At each stop it was expected that we would stay for at least an hour, enjoy a light snack and beverage and engage in conversation. Each of the expats also instantly adopted us as friends, so tightly knit is the expatriot community here. Even a casual conversation at the ATM or grocery store line results in mobile numbers being carefully entered into the "contacts" list for your phone.

When I went with Rani to the store she saw a young man, stopped him, and in a flurry of Singhalese established that he was from her village in Sri Lanka. They cheerfully exchanged mobile numbers and said good-bye.

IKEA furniture has also played a big part in our home (and everybody's else's, for that matter!) but hunting down what we want and meeting so many new people through buying furniture listed online has been extremely rewarding.

What we can't wait to do is go back to our favorite place, the hot, dusty, piled to the ceiling with incredible and exotic carved and inlaid pieces, Lucky's Furniture store warehouse in Sharjah. That's where we bought our beautifully carved bed and custom made bedside tables, and also these gorgeous rascals.

I was told that these ornate metal tools are for cutting fruits and leaves. (The handles open and the middle bit is a blade. The seahorse one opens with both handles to reveal a triangle blade, the others like nutcrackers.) I thought they were simply beautiful. From the left to right, seahorses, a gecko (head pointing to the right) and a parrot. I found them intriguingly whimsical. Rani found them and immediately set to cutting up apple slices with them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Come with me little girl on a magic carpet ride..

I finally got ahold of the car company (after repeated attempts and leaving a detailed message), and explaned the situation, emphasising the "minor" part of the accident and damage.

You have the sheet? They asked.

The police form, yes, I have it.

Bring it when you bring the car back, thank you madam.

Hey, all right then! I carefully wrote down his name and what he said...just in case.

For fun we headed out to Masafi, to the Friday Market, and the mountains. We went on a Friday, though as I understand it the Friday Market is open every day.

Leaving the forests of cranes and the city behind, we headed east into the desert. The deserts around Dubai are not the endless expanse of sand I expected them to be, though there are certainly areas where it's nothing but windblown dunes. The ones by the roads that we see most often tend to be dotted with scrub brush, or the beautiful acacia trees with their romantic silhouettes. Occasionally we get to see camels or goats resting intelligently in the shade beneath the acacias.

The Friday Market in Masafi rests along the freeway in the Hajar Mountains. We were positively frothing with excitement over going up along a road. Dubai is pancake flat, so any change in altitude alone was worth the ride. The mountains are sandy, rocky, monochromatic and ragged, extending one after the other. For us, anyway, the thought of being lost and trying to make your way through the mountains quickly reared it's ugly head and we settled a fraction lower in our seats and thanked once again the god of air conditioning.

"Masafi" means pure water and while the riverbeds, the Wadi were bone dry, one can immediately see that waters have cut their way through the mountains in great flows. According to the UAE embassy a wet year in Masafi can have as much as 350 mm of rainfall, as little as 30 in a dry year. Seattle, where we know it sprinkles and has more gray days than actual rain volume, averages about 9200 mm, according to the City of Seattle. Actually, most cities in the USA get more rain than Seattle! The gray days, however, well, we have that market cornered.

Back to the Masafi Friday Market. Because Masafi is one of the wettest areas in the UAE, all things being relative, there is successful farming there, and nestled in the hollows between the mountains there are green groups of palm trees, very much the picture of an idyllic oasis. Therefore the fruits and vegetables offered alongside the road are gorgeous, though whether they are local is anyone's guess. The market itself is on both sides of the main road, the carpet stalls tall to accomodate their wares, the produce and pottery stands shorter, and a few tiny one-table restaurants all lined up next to one another.

Another grouping of sellers offered luxuriant plants of all sizes, lush green leaves and bright flowers. Hot coals sizzled in metal boxes next to the walkway to cook corn on the cob, and venders chopped the husks off of coconuts with large knives, piercing a hole in the top for a straw whenever they had a thirsty taker.

I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea that it is Autumn back in the USA. Without fields of pumpkins, dahlias and sunflowers, and dewy spiderwebs in the gray misty mornings, I am having a hard time with it. The sun here is blazing, there will be no crunch of colorful leaves on the sidewalks, but with the outdoor market and the mountains, I experienced a tiny taste of the things that say home to me in the Pacific Northwest.

The market's offerings were many, but we had come for carpets. Persian Carpets, to be specific. I had read endless guides and varying opinions via the internet on how to determine the quality and value of a Oriental rug until my eyes were crossed and I was more confused than ever. Knowing that haggling was an essential part of the process didn't help either. The whole idea is so foreign to me, and it made me nervous. I had read one useful thing though. It said that not only is bargaining expected, it is the fun part for the merchant.

We walked toward the carpet sellers. As it was afternoon, some were snoozing on their wares to wait out the heat. We entered a stall, completely at random. Away from the bright sun there were carpets of every size and quality. Immediately two white garbed barefoot men, one young and beardless, one older, approached us and began asking what do you like, what color, what pattern do you want, what size you like?, as they rolled out and flung carpet after carpet at our feet. It was hard, but completely unavoidable, to walk on them, feeling guilty for sand-dusty shoes.

Slowly the colors and dazzling designs began to sort out in my mind into like and dislike. I use the term "dislike" advisedly; the carpets were beautiful. Certainly there were carpets for every taste rolled up along the walls, but the offerings at our feet were what we were thinking, exotic, intricate.

"Where are your carpets from?" I asked the older,more English-confident man.

Espain madam.

Really? Spain? Huh. well, OK then.

We kept looking, and I asked again, "these are from Spain?"

Yes, yes.

What are they made of?

Silk, madam, these are silk carpets.

Touching the incredibly soft surfaces, turning them over to look at the backs, we were migrating slowly but surely toward the larger-sized carpets. Knowing that there's no ceiling for how much one can spend on a carpet, we were even more acutely and uncomfortably aware that we had no idea what we were doing.

Finally I asked, "Do you have any Oriental rugs? We would like to see Oriental rugs."

He looked at me. Madam, please, madam these carpets, they are from Esfahān, Iran, madam.

Aha! Esfahān, the second largest city in Iran. Not Spain. This made considerably more sense. From Iran, therefore not just Oriental but indeed Persian. We managed not to feel too stupid (denial at it's finest) and continued with the task at hand.

The kids were getting pretty pink by this time, gamboling about on the carpet rolls stacked waist high everywhere. Thomas was helping roll out carpets in imitation of the sellers, carrying bolts around proudly. I had turned away several carpets, shaking my head no at the "Too English, no, " designs of gardens and roses, and we'd discovered a preference for longer tassels at the ends, defined borders, and patterns that revealed more and more the more you looked at them.

They brought more carpets, the younger one patiently holding them vertically in front of him like an extra show wall. Mike saved us by expressing a fondness for the rugs with bolder navy color, and we went from there to two that we liked very much.

Incredibly nervous, I asked the big question: "How much? Bekkam? Maybe for both?"

While the younger one continued to ply us with carpets, the older man made a big show of going and getting a calculator. He held it in front of my eyes and pronounced, 750 dirhams for the large carpet and 650 for the smaller one.

Mmm, I said. Honestly, I was expecting a much larger number than that. Having looked in the stores in Dubai, I knew that even a crappy carpet cost that much or more.

How much? How much you want to pay? he asked with a new, higher note in his voice. He tried to make me take the calculator. You say, you say how much.

I muttered in an undertone to Mike, "1000 for both?"

"We like these very much, but I think we will go look at other stores, you keep these two for us and we'll come back," I said.

No, no! he said, working up to a frenzy, trying again to put the calculator into my hands. I repeated myself and he threw up his arms: I no talk with you any more! turning to Mike as I played along and gave a gasp of mock offense. Mike repeated what I'd said, both of us smiling and nodding, but turning away and starting to gather the children.

He gave a dramatic moan and continued to entreat us to name our price. I cut my eyes to Mike, who shrugged, so I grinned at him saying under my breath, my back to the carpet seller, "Think of a price and cut it in half."

"500," I said, turning to look the vender full in the face, chin lifted, smile in place.

Which one, madam?

"For both," I said firmly, smiling still.

He did a fair imitation of ripping his hair out.

We did a fair imitation of moving toward the exit.

OK! OK! he said, shaking his head in agitated desperation, 700.

We agreed.

You like cheap, very cheap, Oh-kaay I do cheap for you, he said, a smile creeping onto his face, though he tried to keep it hidden until the money was in his hand, at which point he was wreathed in smiles for all of us. Now everybody was happy, our carpets were wrapped, and Mike got the kids back into the car for some much needed A/C. I couldn't resist going to a produce stand, thinking I'd just take a second to get something to nibble on for the kids and shoot a photo or two.

However, nothing can be rushed, and the fruit vendor from Bangladesh proved even more skillful than the carpet seller.

After regaling me with proud tales of his beloved cricket team, and getting me to sample both the chickoo (sweet and delicious egg-shaped brown fruit that tastes quite a bit like a date, but with a different consistancy, I think a new favorite for me,) and slicing me a juicy piece of the local green oranges I'd seen growing and assumed weren't ripe yet, I managed to acquire what he deemed to be 50 dirhams of produce. I laughed in his face. True, besides the chickoos and oranges, I had also selected apples, sugarcane, a peculiarly long pineapple, and spectacular purple mangoes with the leaves still glossily attached, but now I was getting confident with the game. As we started to haggle Mike came striding back through the heat, wondering what the heck was taking me so long and could I please wrap it up so we could go get some lunch for the kids? Parting shot: Bethy has to go to the bathroom.

I'd named 15 dirhams (I knew this to be ridiculous, but the produce was already in the bag, why not?) and we settled at 35. I managed not to have that much in smaller bills, so he let me go at 32. ($8.71 in USD). Dashing back to the car, we drove to the nearby gas station in time for Bethy, then back around to the U-turns far down the freeway either way to get us to the side with the restaurants. There was "New Restaurant" which was our initial choice, but I favored the showmanship and appeal to hygiene of the two men in white paper hats further down the line.

The tiny restaurant had no menu, but the chef carefully described his wares. We turned down the now ubiquitous coconut, and Thomas posed for a photo with one for Mike before it fell off its stem, narrowly missing flattening his foot. We were starving, and as the overhead fan busily blew our napkins aound the table we busily devoured a plain but tasty feast of flat hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, garnished with tomatoes and cucumbers and sauce, a gratis plate of french fries, fresh pulpy apple and pineapple juices, and of course a bottle of chilled Masafi brand water.

Less than 50 Dhs. We asked our cook where he was from.


He asked us where we were from.


He lit up like a Christmas tree. Afghanistans love Americans! Americans the best, most good, Americans help us in my country!

We assured him that we hoped so, that we wished him and his country the best, and that we'd really enjoyed the delicious lunch he'd made for us. More smiles all around, hugs for him from the kids.

Back into the car and onto the road, we wandered a couple of side roads, Mike indulging me as I periodicaly jumped out of the car to photograph herds of goats and the landscape. One goat cracked us up as it casually munched a teabag, the yellow label fluttering the at the end of its shorter and shorter string until it too was consumed. (Lipton is big can't walk around outside away from the city without seeing a Lipton teabag or twenty on the ground)

As I was photographing a group of goats making their way up the slopes of a wadi, a carload of black scarved Emerati women stopped, their children, as always, clambering unsecured in the back and front seats and beautifully dressed babies sleeping on their laps. In perfectly accented English the lovely driver asked if we would like to be shown the nature places of the mountains. We regretfully declined, since we weren't sure about times. It was a very kind gesture, and, I think, typical of the area.

Heading back down from the mountains and back into the desert, we headed for the optional stop on our trip, the Sharjah Desert Park. We took the kids through the thoughtful habitats and exhibits of animals of the inside zoo area, including the kids' favorites; flamingoes, sand cats, mongooses (Rikki Tikki Tavi is big with Bethy right now; we're reading her first chapter book together, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book) and all manner of poisonous snakes, vipers, cobras, and puff adders, to go with the mongooses, geckos of course, and many large animals, all beautifully housed, including a pair of very rare Arabian Leopards.

No cameras were allowed in the Wildlife Centre, and it was kind of refreshing to go to the zoo without one, nor to have to navigate around those taking photos. While we could easily have spent all day at the Desert Park (and such a deal at 30 Dirhams for all of us!) we had to table the Natural History Museum with it's 5 main exhibition halls for another time, which will have to be an outing all on it's own for us, and, after retriving the camera from it's banishment to the car, went to the Children's Farm. There were pony rides, (5 Dhs, $1.36) goats, chickens, ducks, and donkeys for petting, but best of all: