Monday, June 29, 2009

How sweet it is...

To see classic cars along the road....

To make sand castles...

To wander farmer's markets...

To enjoy the lingering summer twilight...

To laugh about pretty much nothing because you're so happy to be with each other...

That's coming home.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's the world I know...

The landscape here in Washington is such a tonic for my eyes and soul. It's so green and lush and alive, and the hills and valleys feel like being in a bowl of nature all around. Clouds in the sky, and it rained.

The kids were incredibly good on the flights, and are now having the best time with their cousins. They were so excited to be met by their cousins Alex and Allison at SeaTac airport.

I turned on the cold water tap and darned if cold water didn't come out. For the longest time we thought the taps in Dubai were all plumbed backwards since if you turned on the cold you got hot and if you turned on the hot you'd get cold for a little bit...and then it would be really hot.

There is a honest-to-God tumble dryer in this house, oh, luxury of luxuries.

Bethy was fighting me about putting on socks. Finally she said she didn't want to wear socks because the sand gets stuck inside. We all laughed. No sand here unless you go looking for it.

I went to Walmart for a fun, brainless field trip, driving amongst sane people along the way and getting a drive through high octane latte. Between the caffeine and the amazing prices at Walmart I nearly stroked out. Dubai is SO expensive!

I tried to get out of paying state taxes at Walmart, slapping down my Emirates driver's license and residency card, but it became painfully obvious I was causing more stress to the 3 checkers and the supervisor than it was worth. None of them had ever heard of Dubai, let alone the UAE, and the choices "in the book" were only within the USA, Guam, the Virgin I said, not worth flustering them so.

Mike and I both have craved pizza for months from The Rock, which is a wood-fired pizza place. They also offer their discerning patrons buckets (no, really! Of the plastic take to the beach and fill-with-sand sort!) of a special and highly tasty 5-rum concoction for the adults and raw dough for the kids to play with. OK, so we all like to play with the dough. We made it there for lunch and were rendered utterly useless for the reminder of the day. Could've been the pizza, could've been the buckets...

Fortunately the good times for our kids with their cousins continue.

As you can see.

On the negative side, we all decided the best thing to do while being here was to get sick and get everybody around us sick too. Our first days of our visit have been joy mixed with the nonstop coughing, jet lag, and some mental confusion that has led to interesting scenarios. On one hand we're so happy to be here, on the other hand we feel like the plague...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oh how I longed for you...

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today,
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas, to the USA.
-Chuck Berry Back in the USA

More than 30 hours after we got into a taxi to take our family to the airport in Dubai, we're back in the Pacific Northwest. It's taking coffee and doughnuts to keep us upright at this point. (Maple bars!!! Total bliss!!!)

Mike was trying to keep Thomas awake as long as possible tonight, trying to get him on the correct time schedule for here and maybe lessen some of the jetlag. Thomas finally escaped persecution by huddling on a wooden chair under the kitchen table and going to sleep. (see above) We gently put him to bed.

I am pleased to report Bethy finally finally finally got her Slurpee.

I'm pretty sure life doesn't get any better than this. Well, not without a good night's sleep, anyway.

So, so happy to be home.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

There's no place like home...

Thomas and a young date palm.

Time to say good-bye to the Middle East, for now.

Our first visit to home, to the Pacific Northwest, to our families, in almost a year.

Goodbye to the sultry heat that has morphed into something downright vicious at times. Today I really could have used a potholder to enable manually changing gears using the stickshift in Snorkel Car. No seriously, I burned myself. Thomas had sweat rolling down his face in the backseat. It was an ugly scene.

Bethy had a good-bye to say as well: good-bye to her first tooth. The amazing Tooth Fairy gave her US dollars to spend. That is one smart tooth fairy, I tell you. Bethy was very, very brave at the dentist and the tooth fairy heard about that too. Well connected apparently.

The next day Bethy took in the money and the note from the fairy to school to show-and-tell and on the bus another child told her that there was no such thing as the Tooth Fairy, that it was really Mommy who puts the money under her pillow. Bethy asked me if this was true. Grasping at straws, trying to play it cool, I asked her what she thought. She grinned her adorable tooth gap grin. "No!" she said, "no way could you stay up late and sneak something under my pillow like that."

Ha! So there, bus kid!

Bethy had her last day of kindergarten, and somehow accidently brought home another child named Rijk's kindergarten journal they've kept all year long as well as her own, along with some of his papers. I fretted about how to get the papers to his family: we are flying out tonight!

Don't worry, this story has a happy ending.

After numerous phone calls I got ahold of his Mom, who said they too are flying out tonight. Looking at their very Dutch sounding names, it seemed like it would be too much of a coincidence, but I asked anyway. Sure enough, they are flying out on the exact same flight to Amsterdam as we are.


End of the year party in Bethy's KG1 class.

I fortunately found and gently dug up Eba the turtle in time to pass her on to the turtle sitter. I was not looking forward to trying to explain in Urdu "please feed our turtle vegetables and fruit now and then, I shall pay you extra" to our gardener.

Pretty sure Google's translator tools couldn't have helped much with that one.

So, goodbye Dubai until August. There are many things and people here I shall miss, but home is calling, and there's no place like home.

Bethy says the first thing she wants to do when we get to Seattle is go get a Slurpee.

My "must-do" list has an alarming number of food things on it as well. Very much the expat experience. Mostly, though, I want to see our families and friends back home, to go running in the rain, and to see the whiteness of beautiful Mt Rainier soaring above it all.

Then I'll be home.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Let's go to the movies...

Thomas got to see his very first movie in the theater. Our family is very much into Pixar flicks...oh, we love them so...therefore we were all excited to go see UP. The kids went into hysterics at the balloons just watching the DVD previews at home.

The idea of getting popcorn and M&Ms was more than enough to send the kids' happiness quotient into the stratosphere. I think we could have sat in a dark room with no movie, just the refreshments and they would have been happy little campers.

I learned a few things from this experience of taking a small child to the movies: most importantly not to expect to see the whole thing. Second lesson, it's not my imagination: the tone and pitch of Thomas' voice carry really, really well. He, like all of us, is a member of that deplorable species the movie commentator.

Actually, Thomas did pretty well, cried less than I did, but UP was too scary for him. He did a lot of climbing into my lap and twice the chorus of "Mommy I 'cared!!!" (I'm scared) ended up in my taking him out of the theater for a break. Of course during pivotal scenes, when the action was greatest. Surprisingly, I didn't mind. Mommy points for me.

And yes, he did wear the empty popcorn container as a hat as soon as the last kernel was devoured, through dinner afterwards (at Johnny Rockets where they had cheeseburgers with Tillamook cheese! Oh, luxury of luxuries!) and beyond.

Can I just say, there's something funny about watching Arabs in traditional dress crowding the counter at a 50's burger joint. Just this side of surreal.

Along the lines of firsts, the kids also got to experience the phenomenon of the Dubai Friday Brunch. The point of these things is to eat (and in the adults' case, drink) yourself silly. It's a matter of honor. I honestly don't know how some people do this week after week. Our kids missed said point entirely, ate almost nothing, instead having a fabulous time running around with their buddies. Not a bad choice.

I bother to mention this at all as an excuse to share this super cute photo my friend Lizbeth took of her daughter Gaby and our kids:

Can you blame me?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chitty chitty bang bang...

One of the prizes garnered for the Dubai Road Runners Social was 20 children's tickets to the Dubai Dolphinarium. I handed then out to the first 20 kids to arrive which worked like a dream to get them and their parents to the event on time. Generally Dubai time runs a little...or a lot...late. The children and their parents all asked the same thing: "Are we in time? Are there any dolphin tickets left?"

I didn't hold back any of the tickets for my kids, but Cathy was nice enough to give us hers since her kids had already been. The first time the kids and I tried to use the tickets we didn't allow extra time for getting lost and I ended up continuing along Sheikh Zayed Road to the next emirate over and Sharjah Aquarium. The second time we circled like sharks, closer and closer until we finally saw a sign and were nearly there. Then, at a "T" intersection, another driver realised he was turning one turn too early for where he was trying to go and changed his direction to go across the top of the " T" exactly half a second too late.

I'd already entered the intersection from a stop and had turned my head to the right to make doubly sure I wasn't going to hit someone coming from the other direction in the lane I was entering. So I hit the guy who changed his mind and fishtailed in front of me instead. He almost got by...but not quite. Smash, boom, and shudder.

A moment to get our bearings and Thomas summed it up: "Naughty car!"

Bird Car, even from a dead standstill, was more than a match for a little work truck. We both pulled over, got out, and did the exam each others' vehicle dance. Admittedly, my bumper looked even more in danger of coming off that it had after dune bashing (when one can wiggle the front of a truck like a loose tooth it's not the best of indicators), but the side of his truckbed had a big ol' dent that couldn't be denied. Aw, heck.

I knew that there was no way a police officer would come to any conclusion but to give me the dreaded pink slip that says "your fault!" The other driver turned out to be a very sweet construction worker from India, and we had a nice chat until the Dubai police arrived. Thomas was screaming "I wanna go see the DOLPHINS!!!!" and Bethy was being irate on my behalf.

The Indian chap explained the the green-uniformed officer Hindi...and then the cop turned the sides of his mouth down, looked at me and asked "and what do you say happened?"

I didn't even try to get out of it. No matter what, I was looking the wrong way at the wrong millisecond, and should I have convinced the cop it was the other guy's fault he probably would have been deported. Yep, failure to yield for me.

The policeman went back to his patrol vehicle (a BMW...most of the cop cars here are luxury vehicles...not a bad gig) and filled out the paperwork. He gave me the dreaded "your fault" pink slip, a fine slip (oh, dang!) no black points (phew!) and Bird Car's registration card back, but not my driver's license.

"Um, may I have my license back please?" I asked him.

"You may get it from Al Barsha. Pay your fine and you will get your license."

I thanked him (hey, we only had to wait half an hour for the police to arrive and nobody screamed at me this time!), made sure it was permissable to drive without the license (yes if you have that nasty little piece of paper which is only good for 10 days, after which there is no point in contemplating) apologised to and shook the hand of the other driver. He asked if it was a "problem" that I was found at fault, I told him that it was OK and I was glad no one was hurt. He looked gratified and took his correct turn onto the jobsite. I drove straight home, much to my dolphin-less kids' displeasure.

Nowhere on the ticket did it say how much it was for, in any language. I waited a few days and it popped up on the Dubai Police Website: 400AED. About $100. Not bad...but I was told, everything is negotiable in Dubai and to try and get it halved or thrown out. Others had done it.

I called to try and get out of at least part of the fine, and the fellow I talked to swore up and down that it has never been that way in Dubai. Uh-huh.

Al Barsha is not a fellow named Al who breaks kneecaps and collects for the mob, but an area of Dubai where I was supposed to pay the fine. I figured the officer had meant the traffic station, which is called the Bur Dubai Station (Bur Dubai is another area) and the traffic station is actually located in the Al Quoz area. Don't ask. You have to live here a year like we have to get things like this worked out.

I'd given enough time for my license to arrive before me. Thomas and I went in, and sure enough there was an enormous room stuffed full with disgruntled looking men waiting to pay their fines and, in some cases, get their cars released back to them.

I took a number from the dispenser. Number 404. A quick check above the windows. Now serving...numbers 288, 291, 292 and 293.


I was getting some looks from the men waiting. A lot of looks. Obviously my presence was...offensive? NOW what had I done?

Oh, yes, Middle East. Often not so good to be a woman, but every once in a while there's a real advantage: far over to the left, sequestered from the rest of the room, the ladies only line. With only one person waiting, and one person being helped. Ha.

20 minutes later I had paid in full, failing to get the fine reduced -the fellow pretended not to understand me, repeated 410 AED (they have a processing fee...of all the cheek!) twice then refused to meet my eyes or speak to me again. I simply can't outrude someone, I'm no good at it.

On the way out, 30 minutes after I'd taken my ticket, they were helping numbers 299, 301, 303, and 304.

I might have gotten out of there in 5 1/2 hours as a man, probably longer.

Some days, it's good to be a woman. Essentially, the thought process is that we need to be home taking care of the kids and don't have time to wait in lines or go to the Mosque 5 times a day.

Certainly I was happy not to be making Thomas wait any longer than necessary, though he'd done well, stroking the arm of the Lebanese looking woman seated next to him and saying. "This is my lady. This is my chocolate lady." She was utterly charmed and I began to think about putting him into a boys only school.

At work, they asked Mike to congratulate me on meeting my Quarterly accident quota and one of his bosses queried Mike, I hope jokingly, why he even lets me drive.

Mike earned his quarterly quota of husband points by saying I'd never gotten into an accident until we came to Dubai.

What a guy.

We still haven't been to see the dolphins yet.

At some point the front license plate fell off, so now we have to figure out how to get it replaced...

Friday, June 19, 2009

I get knocked down, but I get up again...

The VanCleaves spent more than the usual amount of time in doctors offices the last few weeks. Bethy needed a check-up, and after her appointment I took them out as a treat to the coffee shop. Thomas, active as always and ever the climber, mountaineered up onto the arm of a wing chair and went over backwards, smacking his head very, very hard on the slate floor. Now, this kid whacks his head pretty much daily, but the crack it made striking the ground this time had me up and over to him to him before he started to cry, and cry hard, which he usually doesn't do at all after a "bonk-a-head."

On the back of his little skull where it's supposed to be nice and smooth there was a lump sticking out like a golf ball, and twice as wide. Not much blood, but that bump was not a good thing. I swept him up, barked at Bethy to put the rest of their chocolate muffins in a napkin and ran to pay our bill, kid in arms. Thomas fought me, loudly, about putting ice on the spot, but I insisted.

My first thought was to take him to the ER, but upon reflection called the doctor's office we'd just left, two blocks away, instead. They'd have the nurse call me back, they promised. So I was driving around like a circling shark, waiting for the call back and decided it was asking for an accident. Making an executive decision I hauled the kids back to the doctor's office, which is air conditioned, safe, and has toys to play with.

I'm not trying to be pushy and force them to see us, I assured the receptionist as we came in the door, is it OK if we wait here instead of in the car? She was gracious, and soon enough Nurse Sue came out to take a gander at Thomas' bump. She checked, the eyebrows went up, lips pursed. Yes, definitely better have the doctor take a look at that, and let's keep the ice on.

Our paediatrician (has to be spelled that way here), Dr Keith Nichol, is a lovely Scottish doctor. Reassuring, greying, with a fantastic burring accent, light touch, and overall gentle demeanor, he got to Thomas about 15 minutes later. By that time Thomas was back to perking along, as usual. Nothing seems to stop him for long. Every once in awhile he'd put his hand to his head, look up, say, "ow my head," and then go back to playing. A quick feel to make sure all the bones were nicely attached to one another, and the doctor pronounced Thomas "most likely fine, laddie." Let him sleep and watch him was the advice.

I said for Mike and me, job #1 was to get Thomas to adulthood alive. He guffawed, agreed, then he told me about his son who, from the time he was 6, got dropped off at the local ER alone, so familiar were the staff with him. "We'd drive him there, they'd stitch him up, and we'd come back and pick him up later," Dr Keith chuckled.

How is he now? I asked.

"Oh, he's 28 now, living in Edinburgh. No broken bones lately." smiled Dr Keith.
"Though," he added after a moment of reflection, "he did mention he'd gotten stabbed in the back with a screwdriver a few weeks back."

He whaaaaa?! "Yes, well," he said, "things like that happen all the time there, nowt you can do about it but move to Dubai."

Right. Mental note: do not move to Edinburgh.

My little trip to the doctor came after a week and a half of vertigo and dizziness. It started after the two days of racing, the Mina 10K and then the Predictor 6.8K. I felt as though I'd been on some sort of serious drinking binge. The room spun and rocked when I laid down, and sometimes I couldn't even walk straight. Dizziness came and went with no predictability whatsoever. Unnerving.

At first I thought it must be dehydration, which made sense after the running, my big clue being the one runner hospitalised. I drank lots of water, chugged electrolyte drinks, nothing seemed to help.

So then I thought: middle ear infection? The kids thought it was hilarious when I ran into a wall. I thought it was painful.

Running was interesting, with the path bouncing all around like a poorly filmed documentary. It was enough to make a girl seasick.

I made an appointment with a nice doctor, and met him in his office, female escort for me at his side. (It is the Middle East. One does not spend time behind a closed door with a man. Good way to get thrown in jail for adultery, evidence or no evidence.) Anyway, he took one look at my vitals and said: low blood pressure. Are you sure you've never lost consciousness?

Not that I was aware of, doc.

He prescribed pseudoephedrine, the decongestant. You know, like Sudafed.


The pharmacist said about the same thing: "for hypotension?" I nodded. He shrugged and filled the prescription.

Doubtful, I gave it a try and sure enough, after several days the symptoms eased and then by a week or so they disappeared. Who knew?

Always nice to be reminded: the doctor knows more than you do.

A postscript to this story. I took Thomas out for ice cream and of course he was trying to climb up on the counter to scope out the flavors. A voice behind us: Don't be climbing, little man, we don't want to see you again for that. Nurse Sue, out of uniform, but apparently still on duty.

Her job, like mine, (and that of every parent), never ends.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I'm gonna run to you...

When we got back from Jordan I plunged headlong into two challenges for me. One, the last Mina Seyahi 10K race. You may remember this as my nemesis, the race that is held three times during the running season here in Dubai. I had run it two times before, and both times had broken to a walk. I wanted to see if I could do it, but this time running the entire distance. The weather was getting hotter, and I knew it would be a serious matter of mind over matter. Last chance this season.

The second challenge for me was an interesting one, and one I would not have chosen for myself. The Dubai Road Runners Social Evening was coming up, and I had been asked by the woman in charge if I'd like to help out, back before we left for Jordan. Graham had asked her to do it, since she'd been made redundant at her work and with a full-time maid to take care of her children, well, he thought she'd have the time. Sure, I said, happy to give back to the sport and in some small way to Graham and DRR, to whom I'm so grateful for on many levels. But, I said, no matter what, I'm not running it. I've never been to one of these before. I'm an organisational disaster and it's not for me.

Basically, tell you what you need and I'll do it.

Fateful last words.

Well, a good month had gone by since I was asked to help out, and nothing had happened. She had done nothing. So I emailed the woman in charge: when are we getting together to do this?

No answer.

Then, by Facebook, no less, she tells me she's quitting, that she's too stressed out by this, that and the other thing, sorry. So suddenly I'm stepping up and organising this social evening, which is supposed to be a little more than two weeks out. And I've never been to one before.


I began making phone calls. I'd originally thought I'd try to get prizes for the social, figuring that was the most onerous task and I started with that: making cold calls. I had no idea what I was doing. I even wrote out a telemarketer sort of script with talking points. Graham passed on all the information he had about where the social had been held last year, the menu and such.

OK, we needed a place. The Dubai Offshore Sailing Club from last year. Graham and I sent almost identical emails to the manager, asking for a date. First he gave us the close one, which was good with the weather getting hotter and more humid every moment, considering the outdoor venue, but bad for getting things done. Then the manager realised he'd double booked with another party and put us out a couple more weeks. Hotter, but more time to get it together, assuming I could figure out what was expected, of course.

Darn. I was kind of thinking that no one would blame me if I didn't get it all together in such a short amount of time. There went that excuse.

Head banging against the nearest flat surface commenced.

I made call after call to local businesses, trying to get through to the Marketing Manager, someone in Promotions, does your company sponsor local events? Would you like to donate a prize and promote your company? Support local athletics? Do you speak English? English please? Hello? Er, hello?

My toughest part of this, besides getting though in the first place, was trying to make the calls when I thought Thomas would be quiet enough. Truly difficult , and didn't always work out well. The little guy figured out by the later stages that if I was on the phone he could probably scam a lollipop out of me in exchange for keeping his peace.

I wrote a two-part apparently tricky little running quiz for the evening, and through a combination of sincerity and persistence convinced various fine companies to turn over some fabulous prizes if I do say so myself. Not stopping there, I engaged in stalking, conning, and guilting a few fellow DRR runners into helping me out on the night in various roles. Graham put me in my place nicely by doubling my prize efforts of weeks in one day simply by making a couple of phone calls. It helps to have connections. I was impressed by his resourcefulness and by the generosity of the local companies. I even, somehow, managed to secure a Seaplane sky tour of Dubai for our grand prize.

Prizes were coming out of the woodwork. Someone donated a coveted Garmin GPS watch for runners, another donated a beautiful diamond ring. Rounds of golf, cruises, Go-Karting, dinners, desert excursions, mall gift certificates, water park and SCUBA passes, and more. Prizes for kids, prizes for adults. All in all we had nearly twelve thousand dirhams in prizes by the night.

I tried not to ask Graham for too much help, but by the time all was said and done I'd sent him more than 90 emails. He was extraordinarily patient with me. Mike ignored the fact that there was no food in the refrigerator and the house resembled a war zone, and bore the entire situation well. Bethy...was Bethy here? Geez, I don't think I noticed.

The menu in place, keeping track of who was coming was made relatively easy thanks to Graham setting up the website to gather RSVPs, and I had tickets made (once it was pointed out to me such things were needed and Mike tracked down a printing place that could do them for us....there aren't Kinkos out here, you know).

Katrina and Graham, showing the class of people they are, quietly and discretely filled in the spots I was missing, and a week ahead of time I was feeling relatively OK about the whole thing.

Hadn't a thing to wear, but oh well. Perhaps I could turn up in my running kit.

Cathy, my running buddy, told me no, and in no uncertain terms, too.

While all of this was happening, the day of the last of the three Mina 10K series races arrived.

Chomping at the bit, we all lined up at the start line. I was going to run with Nigel again but lost him in the crowd thanks to the all-important pre-race potty trip. The race started, and thinking perhaps I'd catch up with him, I turned up the burn at the beginning, but settled in after a couple of kilometers when I didn't see him, feeling that it was more important to reach my goal of not walking. (As it turned out, he was behind me. Oops.)

The race was as tough physically and more importantly, mentally, as I remembered: a beautiful course along and out onto the Gulf on a pier in a loop, but a loop that was run three times. The over and over bit was the hard part, and the sun.

I was spending all my energy being stubborn and keeping the cadence going. One of the top runners went down from heat exhaustion, convulsing, and ended up in intensive care at the hospital for a full 24 hours. They ran out of ambulances. I was running alongside people who should have been way ahead of me which was worrisome on several levels. We were all hurting, even with the water and electrolytes provided. I knew I could do it if I just kept going. So that's what I did.
As you can garner for yourself from the photos, not a pretty sight.

While my finishing time was slower than the previous ones on the same course (with the dreaded walking!) I was very, very proud nevertheless that I'd reached my goal and run the whole way. Cathy and Nigel and I enjoyed our usual post-race photos...once we realised we'd all survived.

There's no friend like a running friend.

The night of the Social arrived and I think it went well. We had a record turn-out and ended up with a waiting list and having to turn some people away! I heard the food was good, (both Graham and I were too keyed up to eat much, let alone taste). Graham had somehow managed to get a limbo bar for the kids, which was a total hoot with another UK friend Alison with her big laugh and loud primary school teacher's voice calling out the action. There's nothing funnier than an Englishwoman shrilling "That is definitely a cheat!" or "Look at that flexibility! Think flexible m'ducks!"

Graham had also put together an amazing slide show of the year, even loading it onto memory sticks so each family could have a copy to take home. Cathy had put together the evening's soundtrack, hours of running-themed music, and even more valuable, listened to my half-incoherent babble during the previous weeks very, very patiently. Nigel, the consummate English gentleman, read off the quiz for me, (he's the only person I know who can say "Haile Gebrselassie" without stumbling after a pint or two) took tickets, gave lots of encouragement, a gin-and-tonic, and all of them showed up early to help set up.

Two other angels, Carol and Rebecca also showed up early, in addition to gathering the funds for a thank-you gift for Katrina and Graham from the runners, not to mention being generally flat-out wonderful. I'd managed, somehow, to get a hotel in Fujairah that I knew Graham and Katrina liked to donate a stay including breakfast in bed for them, so the funds were given flat out to be used any way they wished. I was pretty darned pleased about that.

Thomas contributed by escaping, bellying up to the bar and flirting with the lady bartender during the party. I'm not sure if we should have been proud of him or not.

Carol and Rebecca had gotten a huge and beautiful arrangement of roses for me...and then so had Graham and Katrina! Topping the evening, to my total shock, I won second place for the two-lappers for what Nigel disparagingly calls the "Fat Git Who Shows Up" award. He calls it this because he's gotten it two years in a row. I may have a special plaque made for my trophy, alongside the Dubai Road Runners 2009 bit. Graham said, as he was reading it out, "I'm not sure I can pronounce this one....Natalie VanCleave!" First running trophy. Happiness moment.

The evening went on. I had appreciated all the support and the appreciation, and definitely felt relieved. Gave out the zillion prizes and smiled without effort. By the end of the night Thomas had gotten chocolate all over my dress, the humidity had risen, everything was hot and soaking wet, and I had a big neckline sweat ring, but I didn't really care. Somehow, we'd pulled it off.

At the DRR Social: Carol, Nigel, me, Graham, and Rebecca.
Why yes, I would be the representative American.
There's nothing like surviving not just one but two things you're seriously unsure about your ability to get done. Made this girl tired, grateful, and happy.
Life is good.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Whatta man (whatta mighty good man)

Today is a very special day in our family. Today is the 41st birthday of someone who doesn't show up in the blog all that often: Mike.

Why, you may ask, if you love this guy so much you followed him on little more than faith and the strength of his word to the Middle East, do we never see him in the blog except when you go on vacation?

This is a good question, and it deserves an answer: he is always at work. Mike is the hardest working guy I know, and the job is getting harder and more demanding every day. I told him yesterday that when our contract is up he should go into a more relaxing field, like, oh, I dunno...battlefield surgeon?

This is not to say Mike doesn't like his job. He loves what he's doing, seeing his engineering come to life...bigger than life! It's merely that there aren't enough hours in the day and everything is an emergency. His most common comment to me goes like this: you have NO idea.

More often than not he chases it up with The job is exactly what I expected it to be. Then not a word of complaint escapes his lips.

He leaves before sunrise, I throw him an espresso and a vitamin on the way out the door, and hopefully he comes home maybe 14 hours later when I'm putting the kids to bed. (Assuming I'm on schedule, ha ha.) Honestly, that doesn't leave much room for blog fodder. There's only so much you can write about "the hubby is exhausted again" and not drag down your readers and worry the mothers.

However, this post is for Mike. Yesterday I failed miserably in trying to find him Wii Guitar Hero, though I followed though on part 2 of the plan and made reservations at our favorite steak house. There they will sing a South African version of Happy Birthday to him with a view of the Burj al Arab besides. I've been practicing my ululations and should I get up the courage to let it rip will embarass myself and Mike and probably everybody around us. Anything for the birthday boy.

So, now that I've threatened to embarasss Mike, let's just go on ahead and go for the gusto. Brace yourselves, and I'll do my best not to get all sappy and sloppy. Nobody wants to see that happen.

Mike is the most ethical person I know. I never met somebody with such a strong internal moral compass. Which keeps me out of trouble most of the time. He does what's right simply because it's right. Even when he was a teenager he was like this!

He goes out of his way to make sure I know he knows that I contribute to our family too. A lot of wives complain about how they are utterly unappreciated; I would bet that at least once a week Mike drags his head out of whatever schematics he's dredging his way through to thank me for something, be it clean jeans or a half edible dinner. He actually uses the phrase I appreciate what you do.

He loves the kids and always does his very best to do the best for them. They adore him and are still little enough and in love with him enough to yell Daddy! Daddy! when he comes home.

And he has a really sexy smile.

Especially with a kid on his head.

Living here, and working so hard, has sucked a lot of Mike's ability (and, he claims, his sense of humor) to have fun right out the window. We cancelled our weekly date because he flat out doesn't have the energy for it. However, he still forces his eyes open long enough to read bedtime stories every night, to play puzzles or build with legos, and refuses to take "time away from the family" for himself, however much I encourage him to.

Conversely, he patiently listens to my prattle every evening and makes sure I get to go running. Somehow he gets it, that I would simply go stark raving mad (or at least be really lousy to be around) if I didn't get to go pound the pavement and for my sake (and that of the children) he puts up with and supports my fix.

He tries really hard to think though the challenges of parenting tht we all know can be overwhelming, especially when you're tired.

Most importantly, I know I can count on him.

When I first met Mike, some 13 years and some ago, I thought, wow, what a smart, great guy. This guy is something special.

I still think so today.

To Mike, my spousal unit, back-up, best friend, silent blog partner, the guy who puts up with our kids and all my foibles: Happy Birthday. I love you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Measured out measured with coffee spoons...

We said our good-byes to Petra. Though we'd bought a 2 day pass to enter ancient Petra, one day was enough. We were ready to take the long drive back to Amman, and to go home.

We bade farewell to the hotel, and to the poultry farm across the street bearing the legend "Fleshy Hens Farmer" (enough to put me off nuggets for a few days, I can tell you!)

and fueled up at the local petrol station, where they were drying their clothing on a line strung between the pumps.

Driving back to the Desert Highway, we went through the most nothing we'd ever seen.

Mike even let me drive. That should tell you.

It was on this day that I garnered my fondest memory of Jordan. I know, I know. We'd been through such spectacular, crowd-pleasing adventures, what could there possibly be upon which I would bestow such a title? Let me tell you. All of the sudden there was something I hadn't seen since we left the Pacific Northwest. Something that, to me, positively screamed SEATTLE! HOME!

Drive-through coffee stands. A whole slew of them. A whole Seattle Slew of them! No! Couldn't be. But there they were.

Abrupt breaking and pulling over at one of them. I was driving, so that's what happened. Positively Pavlovian. (The knee-jerk reaction and drool on the steering wheel.) There was the little plywood stand, and then a shade and four chairs besides. The chairs occupied by four bemused Jordanians.
Bethy and I were gleefully unbuckling and bailing out of the rental car. Mike was trying to be blase about the whole thing.

It was a pretty good act.

The four men, sitting there, obviously in the middle of doing nothing at the coffee shop, a cherished Middle Eastern Tradition, welcomed us with enthusiasm. I felt like a squirmy puppy but I tried to play the role of responsible mother and upstanding tourist.

Sit down! Sit down! They said with gestures and wide smiles, and though I was delighted that they would be so hospitable to a woman, I insisted they keep their seats. Not only politeness kept me from sitting; you know what happens when you accept an invitation. It can go all day, and I'd left the engine running for a reason.

Ordering coffees proved somewhat difficult, not that I tried to pull a Starbucks on them with some ridiculous cathecism of an order. Merely the language barrier. Not instant. Real coffee.
They talked with me a while, where were we from, we like Jordan, yes? Oh yes, very much, your country is beautiful, I assured them. We have seen Amman and Wadi Rum and Aqaba and Jerash and Petra...

"...and Qatrana!" one finished for me.
I looked confused. "Al Qatrana! Here!" he said with all the aplomb of one delivering a punchline.
We all laughed when I got it.

Bethy charmed them further by not only posing for photographs (mobiles had been whipped out in short order as soon as they saw us and one fellow ran to the next coffee stand over to retrieve his and get a picture too) but also by singing her very best Arabic songs for them:


(Recorded at a previous time along the trip. Thomas' yell in the background is a bonus. Once you open the file you can back click to the blog. Yes, this IS only for the true Bethy fans. Pretty cool to hear her sing in Arabic, though!)

She took her time picking treats for Thomas and herself from the stand...I wasn't familiar with any of the packaged sweets beyond Snickers bars and told her to go with the flow and pick whatever looked interesting.

The Jordanians also went over to the car to say Salam aleekum to Mike, but more to take photos of Thomas.

The coffee, served in paper cups, was dark and spiced and wonderful and cost next to nothing.
I thanked our hosts over and over again, woefully unable to communicate the treat it had been for me to get a coffee from them. I had tried to explain, and though there was much nodding, there was no way they could have realised the impact of getting a taste of home in an unexpected place.

That was the best.

Getting back to Amman, past stacked sheep in trucks, (didn't look comfortable).

to check into our homebase Hisham hotel one last time. Bethy had carefully documented in her travel journal all the types of transportation we'd employed: horse, camel, truck with no seatbelts, rental car, donkey. She also drew what she declared was another major high point for her of the trip: eating at Pizza Hut that day.

That night at bedtime there were soccer games and party revelers singing "Happy Birthday" over and over again outside our window in the restaurant below, but fortunately the winds came up and with the projection screens in danger of blowing away the loud crowd either went inside or the party petered out with the late hour.

The heavy winds were loud too, and the thunder through the night, leading us to wonder if we would be able to fly home to Dubai early the next morning. We did, Bethy getting to add "airport bus that you have to stand up in that took us out onto the tarmac" to her travel journal. Our only casualty was Thomas' carseat not being put onto the plane in some sort of baggage handler oversight
We did get it back a week later, which was an adventure in itself.

So that was Jordan.

I would be untruthful if I didn't admit to taking a deep breath of relief at being back in the UAE the moment I set foot in the Dubai airport. Clean water. No machine guns or soldiers or checkpoints; it felt safe. We were a little sad to trade in Salaam aleekum for hello madam and sir.

It was nice to go into our very white and clean house, and to sleep soundly, so soundly, in our own beds.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I will follow you into the dark

While Mike got the soreness rubbed out of his muscles I took the kids to the hotel's icy pool overlooking Petra. You could see how one of the wonders of the world had remained hidden for so long from the Western eyes. There is nothing about the mountainous terrain to give the slightest hint that an amazing city is concealed within.

Bethy was the only one tough enough to get into the frigid waters of the swimming pool, and then not for very long. I used the time as an opportunity to ice my legs and feet, which after a few minutes of the treatment were blue and nicely numb, and Thomas kept darting over to the pool, touching the surface with a hand or foot and retreating. "Too cold too cold!"

We'd read in the guidebook, and been told by fellow travelers we'd met along the way, that Petra by candlelight was an experience not to be missed. Those are words to get us moving. We got a babysitter, cable TV, and room service for the kids once again, much to their pleasure, and headed out.

We hadn't secured tickets in time, the front desk having already sold out, so there were some tense moments...would we get in? First we had to find an ATM, and after dark in a strange and small town this was no mean feat; we asked passers-by on the streets and I did some running back up a one-way street to secure enough cash. Then to ancient Petra, standing in line, fretting over the time, and voilĂ , once again despite poor planning and total ignorance, we were in.

These things usually work out.

All along the trail were luminaries, candles in paper bags, weighted by sand, and stars overhead. Married couples had been instructed to hold hands, singles were told they were out of luck, and all were instructed to stop walking if they wanted to look up at the stars. People were also asked to not turn on their flashlights, and we were constantly irritated by folks who I guess figured the guide didn't mean them. The night atmosphere was mysterious and wonderful, shadows and flickers from the candles, and the mobile phones and flashlights messed with our eyes adjusting to the dark and were anachronistic to the idea of an evening in an ancient place.

I did get anachronistic and tried to take a couple of photographs sans flash for you, but digital and night don't agree well in my hands. If you do a Google image search for "Petra+night" some more accomplished photographers took care of that for me.

Forget diamonds: sometimes Google is a girl's best friend.

The Siq passageway seemed even longer after dark than we remembered, leading to the inevitable joke of "being sick of walking in the Siq." However, the candlelight was reflecting eerily off the walls closing us in, rock all around soaring to over a hundred meters high. Strangely it felt safe somehow, like being embraced by ancient earth.



(these are wav. files of the music I recorded from the evening. Both are short, less than a minute long and I think will give you a glimpse into how magical it was. Once you open one or the other and it starts downloading you can backclick to the blog. The first is the string player, the second the flute.)

We reached the dramatic reveal of the Treasury, now lit by hundreds of candles cradled in the sand. Fantastic. There all were guided to sit down upon mats on the sand with the hundreds of others visiting, and brought tea. The evening was cool and delicious, and the Treasury even more beautiful by candlelight. It was a time to sit together in the shadowed golden light, sip our tea and breathe the night air.

Mike overheard someone saying how sandy the air smelled. Taking a sniff himself, he whispered to me "It smells like home." I agreed. Dubai has the same dusty, gritty sort of odor, and we've become well accustomed to it.

We were welcomed, and then the sound of singing and an Arabic stringed instrument being bowed soared over the crowd from a man in traditional dress seated in the middle. The world seemed larger and smaller all at once, listening to the ancient tale woven by the two voices. After the musician finished there was a lull, and they explained that the song had been about a shepherd. Then, from the depths of the Treasury, the echoes of a flute being played. Slowly, slowly, the sounds grew closer, and from the darkness the flute player emerged. The Arabic tune he played was haunting, evoking times long lost, and a longing.

For me, it closed the circle of the Petra experience, and we stumbled back through the lovely darkness to our car, fulfilled.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Back in the saddle again...

It was a long, long walk back from where the donkeys dropped us off, our young guides making sure to give us a business card in case we wanted their services again!

We had to stop in the Petra bathroom at least one more time. At this point you may be thinking that I am a little preoccupied with the whole bathroom thing. I beg your forgiveness, this bathroom was really spectacular. Even according to the guidebook. One of the vibrantly striped caves had been converted into a real bathroom, with running water. Also for a refreshing change, there was no one trying to get money out of us in there.

I don't mind people trying to make a buck (or a Dinar, as it were) but being squeezed all the time, the combination of feeling guilty and trying to be polite and not get ripped off, was really tiring.

Both kids were completely exhausted and Mike was carrying Bethy on and off. I could hear them making deals. He'd offer "walk to that rock and I'll carry you," and she would, he'd carry her a bit and then they'd renegotiate. I was very pleased to have thought to schedule a massage for him for later in the day and felt like a good wife. Thomas was making no deals of any kind so I hauled him along on my hip. It seemed like a long, long way back to the beginning, which it was. Despite all we'd asked of them out in the heat and sand, Thomas and Bethy were being very, very well behaved.

the kids, worn out, resting on a rock

By the time we got out of the Siq the horses for hire to take passengers up the hillside to the entrance looked awfully appealing. We bartered hard and got some dramatically disgusted looks but secured our ride. The man who came along with my horse kept whopping it on the backside to make it break into a trot, which would then scare my little passenger Thomas. At the end both horse drivers tried to blackmail us into coughing up some more Dinar, ("for the horses, lady!") but we were having none of it. We thanked the men and the horses and moved on.

There are few words to say how good this tasted back at the hotel:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It's a long way to the top...

So in Petra I got on the back of one donkey in order to hold onto Thomas, and Bethy rode the other. Mike was out of luck. Apparently the donkeys had weight limits. This was not mentioned until after the negotiations were complete for the price of the ride, but I don't think Mike was all that eager to hop up anyway. As it was, I felt like I was committing animal cruelty with my heft on the little creature and it's short legs as we started up the first of the some 800 ancient steps cut out of rock.

The donkey didn't complain, however. On the contrary, it absolutely insisted on being first, and charged ahead at a serious clip whenever it thought the other donkey was catching up, heedless of other travelers on the path. The two handlers had to trot next to us to keep up, and poor Mike brought up the rear with his backpack.

I was nervous about the donkeys and their little hooves. There was loose rock, sand, and definite potential to go down. The sides of the path were often steep rock up on one side, cliff down on the other. Our mounts proved themselves surefooted and true, though I decided I was NOT riding down, no how, no way. I trust my feet.

Up and up we went, clippety clop, holding the saddle rings and watching our donkey's long furry ears go this way and that to listen to the clucking of the boys encouraging them forward. For small animals they were strong and quick, and we grew quite fond of our mounts.

All around us the wall of rock rose, the valley stretching away below us. I cannot even imagine the time and effort it must have taken, all those years ago, to make those steps, one after the other, all the way up the mountain. I surmised that the Monastery must be something really special.

We stopped at a summit, Mike somewhere behind us, and the kids and I were invited to get off the donkeys, thank you very much, and rest beneath a shade, beneath which was a small fire, some of our guides' family, and pieces of plywood to sit upon. A small old radio played with relatively good reception, rising and falling with the poetry and swells of Arabic song.

Whenever the fire needed tending someone would rip off a piece of the seating plywood and pitch it in. Convenient.

Mike caught up with us in a much shorter time than I expected. Even so, I was just about to go down and offer to carry the backpack up, but I had to stop and debate with our guides. They protested that they would go, backed by their sister, who was selling jewelery and oddments from a table set up next to the path. "Let one of them go!" She told me, "they are not heavy like you."

Ouch. Well, compared to them, I supposed it was true. Even so!

They said they would wait for us, and to take our time. I looked closely at my donkey for signs of tiredness after carting my carcass, but he seemed happy enough, as donkeys go.

Only a little bit further, they assured us. This proved to be a matter of perspective, but we headed gamely on. The first sight of the Monastery proved to be even more breathtaking than that of the Treasury. FInally coming down a few stairs, around a corner, through the red sand and rocks, and to the right, it opened up to reveal the incredible Monastery.

(note, again, the size of the people in comparison)

Much, much larger than the Treasury, though less ornate, and in its stunning location atop the mountain, the Monastery was most likely a Nabatean temple, though there are crosses inscribed inside, probably by later Christians. The Monastery was carved with beautiful precision and symmetry, and is the largest facade in Petra. Half of the mountain was carved away to create this marvel.

As one can only stare at a something for so long without seeming a total idiot, we broke the spell after a bit. Thomas and I looked for geckos and other lizards among the scrub and Bethy and Mike explored further afield to, as Mike reported when they finally came back, the Ends of the Earth.

Where, apparently, a caterpillar is smoking a hookah.

Mountains in every direction forever, and cliffs that went all the way down.

One of the guides came looking for us before Mike and Bethy returned, and I assured him we wouldn't take much longer. Darn, there went my idea of having a nice cold beer at the well-placed bar in one of the caves overlooking the Monastery. I mean, how often to you get to drink a beer in a cave? (Don't answer that.) It would have been really delicious after the hot and dust, and worth quite a bit in the novelty department. Ah well, opportunities lost. Plus Mike had all the money with him.

Darn him anyway.

Mike wanted to remain behind for the sun to shift to try and get a perfect photo of the Monastery,

and the kids and I made our way back to the guide's shelter to reassure them we were actually coming. There we were given tea by a woman behind a burka mask who couldn't possibly have been as ancient as she appeared. We all sat, watching the sister trying to sell her trinkets to passersby, who largely ignored her. There were stalls selling similar objects all along the trail, and there was nothing particular about hers to stop them. Haram, she commented to the tourists' retreating backs more than once.

A photographer with impressive gear stopped and tried to take a picture of the elderly woman holding court around the fire, and she stopped him dead with sharp gestures and words whose meaning were very clear. He tried to appeal to one of her sons sitting next to her to ask for permission, to no avail. Hands were held up, plams forward, in a sign of surrender, shoulders shrugged, "She is the boss!" said the son.

I commiserated with the would-be photographer. She had an amazing face. "It's killing me too," I told him, "but it's not our call." He bowed, defeated, and continued on his way.

Mike caught up again, I bought a coin reproduction from the sister, wished her well on her upcoming wedding, and getting ready to head down, we convinced the guides to please ride and hold the children safe on each of the donkeys, and that I would walk in exchange. They looked unsure, but agreed when we persisted.

I asked them what haram means. I know it as "forbidden", the opposite of halal , but figured something was missing in translation in the way their sister used it. They looked surprised, but told me it means "stupid". Made sense in the context.

Going down was better than up. I didn't have donkey guilt, for one thing. I got to take more photographs, for another.

We passed tourists on their way up, red-faced and panting from the effort of the stairs. It had gotten hotter, and we encouraged them as best as we could that it would be worth it. Three women entreated us to send a donkey back up to them; one had fallen and twisted her ankle. We promised we would.

Then, at the very last part of the stairs, nearly to the end, disaster. Not for us, but for another traveler. A man had fallen off the trail, slipped apparently, and very fortunately landed on a ledge part way down rather than falling all the way. Had he fallen all the way this would have been a very sad blog entry indeed. As it was, our guides hurriedly handed me the reins and then ran with Mike to see if they could assist while I did the prudent thing and got the heck out of the way.

Guides were riding in fast, moving to help, honestly concerned for the injured man. You could see it on their faces. After a while. Mike came back. "It's his ankle, a compound fracture," he said. Ick. Mike agreed.

We could hear the odd but reassuring sound of a siren getting closer, strange in this place. I sent another guide past, up the mountain to rescue the less-injured maiden, when it was obvious there was plenty of help to get the man safely down.

The ambulance crew and officials arrived, the ambulance straight out of the early 70's. Our guides returned to us and we continued our journey back, grateful that ours would not be like that fellow, who would have to fly back to Europe and get surgery on an injury that Mike predicted would keep him from climbing the stairs to the Monastery for a very, very long time.