Saturday, November 29, 2008

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways...

Our Sri Lankan house helper, Rani, has become a major presence in our home in just the few hours she is here. There is no question as to how much in charge she thinks she is. That would be, pretty much completely in charge. I have to be quite sneaky and savvy to get my way.

First Rani told me that a kitchen without wooden spoons is no good. (I purchased these spoons.)

Then she patiently explained to me that the knives we have are no good for cutting up chicken. (This I knew. They were a super cheap stopgap measure until we get some nice ones.)

Repeatedly she has chided me for not resealing the coffee bag carefully. If the aroma goes quick, no good. (I make the coffee at 4 am, I protest!)

I have learned as a survival measure to clean out the refrigerator and pantry when she's not around so as to not get scolded for waste: this is no good, too much waste madam why you do this?

However, I know to save all bread and non-spicy meats for the birds and cats by her home. If she should find such items in our garbage (dust bin or rubbish bin, here) I quake to think of what her judgement might be. I think she would have no compunction about going through our garbage since she also sniffs the clothing hanging in the closets to make sure we don't re-wear anything without laundering.

Rani has told me with scorn of other "fired" mistresses who did just this, or worse, tried to direct her cleaning powers. Rani does what Rani wants to do, and the way she wants to do it. This works just fine for me, most of the time. A few times I have expressed a preference, gently and subserviently, and we have remained a happy home.

I was very pleased one day when Rani started to lecture me on how people from other countries might be good or bad, and that it does no good to assume that someone from Pakistan is bad, since that's just a silly way to think.

I managed not to look anything but entirely serious when she told me this, though I might have indulged in a private smile and patted myself on the back later.

The other day Rani noticed that Thomas is left handed and began to correct him to use his right hand.

"Oh, no Rani," I told her, "it's OK with me if he's left handed."

Then I threw in the kicker: "I know that's not the Arab way, but it is just fine."

Rani is a Christian, and a Sri Lankan, no worries that she would try to make Thomas do something "Arab".

I also have my ace in the hole: Sir. (Mike to the rest of us).

I have made sure to strongly imply that Sir is He Who Must Be Pleased. I supposedly make absolutely no decisions without consulting Sir. Sir's supposed word is law. However, I also go out of my way to establish that Sir neither beats nor screams at Madam. Rani asked several times during her first weeks with us as to the character of Sir on these points, and I have assured her that he is both fair and kind, and that he works too hard.

As a mistress I think I'm not too tough to take. I make sure she doesn't have to spend her time tidying up when she gets here; rather I get everything out of her way, and make her tea and some sort of sweet. She keeps telling me that we're such good friends to her, that it's nice not to be yelled at, and though that may be manipulation on her part, I have certainly seen women treating their maids in a deplorable manner in the stores.

Rani, for all her strong personality, is genuinely grateful to us. She gives us gifts of plants that she's grown herself from clippings lifted from the neighbors and parks, and is great with the kids, though they don't listen to her one iota and Thomas has her completely wrapped around his little finger.

Her situation here is one of powerlessness on many levels. She has few rights, depends on others for housing and transportation, and works very, very hard. She works six days a week, and ends her day by reading the bible for hours and prays in the early hours of the morning. She loves to sing with her choir, to gossip (though she fancies herself above it, another source of amusement for me), and to tell stories of Sri Lanka.

I was amazed to discover she'd never heard the Kipling story of the mongoose Rikki Tikki Tavi and we pulled up the Chuck Jones animated version on YouTube for her. ( ) She had lots of stories to tell about cobras after that one!

I try to help her out by taking her and her friend Mali on short errands that they need to do, and the other night she asked if I would mind taking her to the grocery store on the way home to mail a birthday card to her adult son.

No problem at all, I said.

When we got there she said "Madam, my hand, you help me. My hand has only 10 dirhams and the stamps may be more than 10 dirhams, my hand has only 10, you pay?"

I gave her another 10 Dhs bill, and she went off with Mali to buy stamps. Soon she came back, looking distressed. "They have no stamps, maybe Monday." she said.

I was buying milk and eggs anyway, so I asked my cashier if he had any stamps, and gleefully bought ten 5 Dhs stamps, not knowing how much it might cost and figuring I could use the others.

Coming out into the dark where Rani and Mali were waiting, I waved the stamps to their delight. Rani had mistakenly asked for Sri Lankan stamps instead of UAE stamps "Madam, I am too much crazy!" she said, shaking her head. Mali took the stamps and began to separate the margins from the sides. Rani was hugging me and laughing at herself, and then we both turned back to Mali, just as she put the card into the postbox. (The first one I've seen here, incidently!)

Where are the rest of the stamps? I asked Mali.

"On the card Madam, I have mailed this card Madam," she said proudly.

In her zealous desire to be helpful she'd put all 50 dirham worth of stamps on the envelope.

I haven't the faintest clue as to how much it costs to mail a card to Sri Lanka, but I bet it doesn't cost $13. 61.

"Mali!" I blurted, "That was 50 dirhams worth of stamps!"

Poor Mali. She and Rani both looked horrified at the waste. We looked at the postbox, as inpenetratable as it should be, and I burst out laughing. Mali and Rani looked at each other and tentatively tried on small smiles for size. Never mind, I told them, never mind.

Then both women clapped their hands to their cheeks, eyes huge in the darkness.

Don't tell Sir! They exclaimed.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maximum Consumption

Homemade apple pie....mmmm....

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

Folks back home were curious about what we had planned for Thanksgiving. We kind of wondered about that too. We went with our usual plan of trying not to be the ones cooking but rather the ones eating. This plan has never let us down, and this year was no exception.

I hadn't seen any turkeys in the stores here, though I had heard that at least one woman was inviting the neighborhood over for Thanksgiving. As she was making her Filipina maid cook all of it, undoubtedly the poor thing's first encounter of the holiday, I couldn't feel terribly good about that scene. I think her mistress sort of missed the point.

Thanksgiving is a quiet sort of holiday here...didn't get mentioned on BBC radio, though I was gratified to be wished a happy Thanksgiving by one Brit (Graham is unfailingly thoughtful). National Day is the big holiday coming up on Dec 2nd, (the day the UAE gained independance from the British. Celebrated with fireworks, sound familiar?) so the kids at Bethy's school were all dressed in their "national" uniform. As I couldn't coax my little princess (sigh) into jeans, she went with a red,white and blue and rainbow ensemble:

This was take two for the dressing up scene. On Sunday the kindergarten classes had dressed up and sung for the entire school.

On that day Bethy chose to wear a Disney Princess outfit. American Princess? Apparently.

There were some showstopping outfits on the 5 year olds for the assembly, from Turkey and Korea and Spain and Sweden and an armored knight of England and, well, you get the idea. There was a little girl from Lebanon who outshone them all in her golden beaded headdress and bikini that sparkled with sequined tassels as she moved. Quite the outfit.

National Day aside, and back to our little American holiday, there were no days off from school or work for our family. Nevertheless we were looking forward to a turkey dinner with friends, and we got one. My friend Cathy ( from the States and her husband Scott are apparently always looking to adopt and feed people on Thanksgiving and we fit the bill. We had a marvelous time with them and their young two sons and Scott's vivacious mom Rachel who has the best New York accent. Music to my ears, that.

She had come out to visit and brought striped Keebler cookies to make pilgrim hats. I was unfamilliar with the pilgrim hat phoenomenon; they are a Thanksgiving tradition for our hosts. Striped cookies topped with big marshmallows which are then dipped in melted chocolate (Hersheys! No way!) to make the requsite hat shape. Tasty!

Tyler and Bethy eating their hats
Cathy and Scott made us a perfectly American dinner, including a Butterball turkey, cranberry sauce, yams and carrots with brown sugar, a green bean casserole topped with crunchy goodness and gravy to douse the entire offering. Fabulous.

Alex (7) amused us on the harmonica, Bethy sang us some Arabic, no less, and Thomas did his best Elvis:

Coffee and ice cream and homemade apple pie, lots of talk and laughs later, we dragged our tryptophan-dazed selves home, having satisfied all requirements for a wonderful Thanksgiving away from home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do you hear what I hear?

While it is simply too early for Christmas:

Here in Dubai lots of people go home, to whichever of over 200 countries is home, for the winter holidays. Therefore they held the SNC company holiday party early. Food, wine and dancing, the works at the Jumeirah Hotel. Very swank.

Best of all, though, was Santa Claus. We'd been told "Father Christmas", but the jolly old elf who showed up was definitely Santa. Every child had a gift, and there were a lot of children, and it was late. Poor Thomas was so excited, and tired, that he didn't make it.

I put him on Santa's lap when his turn came, completely zonked out. Many "awwwwws" ensued throughout the ballroom.

Bethy received a Disney Princess Belle doll, a perfect, perfect gift. Thomas got a pirate ship, which he opened the next day.

Though the party was still going strong we had an early date with the desert the next day, (as you can see from the previous post,) so we ended our evening with that traditional Middle Eastern dance: the YMCA.

Then yesterday I went to a hypermarket at Ibn Batuta and was overwhelmed...Christmas trees! Ornaments! Christmas hymns on loudspeakers throughout the store! What the...

And I felt a rush of emotion I hadn't expected. Not at a mall. Here we are, in the Middle East, away from our families, and it's the holidays. Here we are in an Islamic country and yet, we and our holidays are welcome. Even bigger, that we are here where it all happened.

Something to think about.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

and she dances on the sand...

We had a very exciting weekend. Friday was the company holiday party, (photos to come) and Saturday we headed out to the deserts of Sharjah with 4 other SUVs (us in the Patrol, a Jeep, a Mercedes, a Land Cruiser and an H3) from work for some exploring.

I wanted to share some photos from that trip with you. The desert never ceases to astound me with its beauty.

On this trip we saw long legged insects that danced across the hot sands on their very tiptoes, mysterious plants, wild baby camels, and I even fed a camel an apple and a banana.
He was lying down so I thought it would be safe to approach him. After shyly accepting the fruit he got up and followed me back to the SUV! I gave him another piece of banana and he allowed us to pass. Considering we'd seen two camels munching a piece of cardboard between them, the fruit must have been a treat.

We drove all over, all getting stuck at least once and digging and pushing and towing each other out. It was a great group. I can see how they work so well together on the jobsite.

We emptied out the sand from our shoes at least once an hour to make room for our toes. As we headed towards the mountains the fine soft sand went from pale colored to a rich orange.

It was a marvelous, tiring time, and we came home absolutely exhausted, absolutely happy.

Sand everywhere.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Celebrate good times

I need to interrupt the regularly scheduled blogging to bring you this:

Last night we went with a group from Mike's work to Mina Seyahi's Barasti on the beach for farewell cocktails for the Project Manager who is leaving us for Brazil. It was a fabulous night, with a view of the Atlantis (above, on the right), the newest, most over-the top hotel in Dubai. Over at the Atlantis they were throwing a 20 million dollar star-studded party. Yes, you read that correctly.
Somehow Mike and I didn't get invited to that one, which is good since we had this other party to go to anyway. So we were on the beach you can see in the photograph above, among the palms and under the little thatched huts.
We'd heard rumors there were going to be fireworks at midnight, but holy cow. It was absolutely amazing; the entire length of the palms, 11 kilometers, lit up with multitudes of fireworks like nothing we'd ever seen, the sound rumbling over the ocean to us from the Palm Jumirah Islands. (These are one of several man-made islands here...and they are, like everything else in Dubai, impressive. . The QE2 will have her final berth there, and I am excited to have a chance to dine on such a historic, romantic vessel).

The entire ocean was brilliant with reflected colors, the crowd was far beyond oohing and ahhing, screaming and exclaiming from the sands is more like it. People would get one phrase, be it "Wow", "Oh my God", or "no WAY!" (and of course less kid-friendly terms, imagine!) and repeat it over and over, so staggering was the sight. We were wildly impressed with the show, but from our perspective on the shore we couldn't realise the scope of what we were really seeing: the largest fireworks display in the world, ever.

Ten times the Bejing Olympics one.
Check it out:

Photos below from Karim Sahib, Getty images and Joel Ryan, AP as seen on the Seattle Times website.

No photo can really do it justice. It was beyond words or pictures.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's my life...


I can tell you that if you came to Dubai on business and didn't get to see anything but a grocery store, you'd still feel like you'd had a wildly exotic experience. Our first weeks here were consumed with the fun of finding all the different products and learning what passes for commonplace, and what needs to be hunted down.

The Springs shopping area looks much like you would expect, with the exception of all the different people milling about. Women and men in traditional Arab dress, many Pakistani in their loose-fit flowing shirts and pants, tiny Filipinos and lots of Indians. Here, though, the percentage of European heritage folks is much higher, coming from the grocery store or Hayya! Exercise Club. (Hayya translates to "get up off of that thing and move it." It's a good word to know should you need to shout at your camel.)

All the sorts of stores and restaurants you'd expect to see in a little stripmall are inside, including the ubiquitious Starbucks and McDonalds. Wherever the white man goes, those franchises follow.

Thomas knows the "Mac-dawnlds!" quite well, especially since he can get a tiny ice cream cone for 1 Dirham. (27 cents). He can spot those golden arches a mile, er, kilometer away. What I love about in there is the folks are SO happy to be working for McDonalds.

Air conditioning and tidy uniforms.

There are people constantly cleaning, (I saw one cleaning the stop sign pole!) security man strolling the corridors, and SUVs and high-end cars jockeying for parking spaces outside. In the morning one can get a spot, but as the day goes on it gets a little iffy.

Once in the grocery store, Spinneys, I can either turn over the stroller to the security guard and use a cart, or carry a basket if I only have a few things to buy.

Unless, if course, I buy one of these:

Ostrich Eggs

Then I'll need the cart for sure. Those suckers are huge! That's a lot of omlettes!

Next to the Ostrich eggs, you can see the darkly splotched quail eggs, found in every store.

Also in the refrigerated section, Thomas' new favorite:

Strawberry flavored Camel's milk

Yes, folks, that does say "Camelicious" You can also get this in plain, saffron, chocolate, vanilla...

Thomas asks for it every time he's thirsty, but as I've heard rumors that you should start out slowly with camel's milk to let your digestive system adjust to the different proteins, I'm limiting his intake.

I tried the plain version of camel's milk, and it's OK, but I think I'll stick to the sweeter, creamier cow's milk.

The produce section here is not as exciting as at some of my other haunts, like LuLus, which is a big Hypermarket ("hypermarket" means you can get everything, and they do mean pretty much everything, there), except of course when they have real pumpkins. Next year I'm lobbying for sugar pumpkins, because I haven't had pumpkin pie for a very long time. Those who know me know that this is a bad thing. At least I can get the whipped cream, in a pressurised can, no less! We get our fruits and veggies, and everything that doesn't have a barcode needs to be weighed in kg and tagged at the counter.

Then we move on to a very separate area I always feel slightly sheepish (porkish? piggish?) to enter:

Any true shame I might feel for shopping here in an Islamic country is easily mitigated by the desire for bacon...and sausage...and pizza....

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Just a day, just an ordinary day...

One of my favorite artists is an Oregonian named Ali Edwards who is a great proponent of celebrating everyday life. I was thinking about this concept. and thought I'd give you a snapshot of a typical morning for us, in several parts.

4AM The alarm goes off. It's set to a station called "Radio 2" which plays a variety of music. classic rock and current hits, nothing too annoying, even at this hour. The DJ has a UK drawl. We can get BBC radio and a few other English speaking stations, and then we have a wide choice of Middle Eastern stations of course. Outside it's dark and 75 degrees.

Mike hauls himself out of bed, I pad downstairs and make him a glass of electrolyte solution and heat some water in our electric kettle. How I lived without this thing before, I really do not know. The nice folks at the local Starbucks had ground some beans for our French press and Mike has nice coffee ready for when he goes out the door. He's in a carpool with John, so three days a week he has the SUV and 2 days I get it. For a long time, John drove every day so I could get the house in order, so Mike is making up by taking the odd day. He puts the magnetic company logos on the front doors and heads out by 4:30AM or so.

I settle down with the laptop, maybe some tea, and I answer emails and work on the blog and read the news until the sun comes up at around 6:15.

Then I fetch Bethy and she gets into her uniform for school, eats breakfast, and generally fights me as I put on her sunscreen and brush her curls. The kids usually want grits (yes, found that here) pancakes (the mix here is excellent, though I had the darndest time finding maple syrup. Maple bars can't be found anywhere, though doughnuts are certainly popular. We ate the pancakes with powdered sugar and lemon for a long time) or cereal (not as much variety as in the US, though I finally, and with an unreasonable amount of glee, found shredded wheat). The kids also like Ready Brek, a sort of powdered oatmeal. I haven't tried Vegemite or Marmite out on them yet.

The bus comes at 7:05. It always beeps as it's drawing up to our door, which bugs me, so sometimes we make an extra effort and wait outside on the step to avoid the dreaded beep. Which is probably why he does it.

There are always at least two adults on the bus, the bus driver and his assistant the "bus conductor" Pramon. Pramon comes up the walk, rings the doorbell, and waits while I fight with the door. Once the door is open, he takes Bethy by the hand as I plop a hat onto her head, carries her backpack, and puts her onto the little blue bus. It zooms away and Thomas and I relax, victorious once more.

Since the traffic through the Springs area where we live is generally at a standstill in the mornings, we rarely try to go anywhere unless we go out the door the second Bethy is on the bus. However, the mornings are a great time to do grocery shopping. So Thomas clambers into my favorite new find, a jogging stroller from Australia that actually has a sunshade. (Most of the ones here are not for jogging and do not have sunshades. I think they're for wheeling through the malls, actually.) We head out.

Thomas and I have our usual disagreement about whether the sunshade is up or down, which Thomas inevitably wins and the hood ends up pushed back. I get dirty looks from passersby over this, and several have reached over and pulled it back over him. I agree, but Thomas doesn't, and he's more persistant than I am. Plus he has sunsceen and a hat too. Both of which he has learned to ask for, though he doesn't like the sunscreen process any more than Bethy does, sprays for their limbs and a cream for their faces. That other occupants of the path are quite verbal about protecting the kids from the sun I find funny in a country where kids run wild in the car and babies ride on their parent's laps, often the driver's!

Past the guard at the gate who nods to us, onto the brick walkway alongside the road. The guards generally don't give us much trouble, considering our skin color, but they can be quite an obstacle for people like Rani, demanding her papers and such, asking her business, and generally giving a hard time. Our guards aren't too bad, but at some of her other jobs she lives in fear. The maids have a network of mobile phones and call each other when it's "safe" to scuttle to and from their jobs. A very different experience of the UAE from ours.

Where Thomas and I walk or run near our villa is quite idyllic, trees and flowers and green grass on the side of a very flat, gently curving pathway. Most of the other occupants of the walkway are gardeners, on their bicycles, or already bending over their work. They carefully move anything out of our way as we approach, and many nod or smile and wave when greeted. There is a new tree blooming right now that reminds me of a bride with bursts of creamy white flowers the texture of orchids, which perfumes the air with honeysuckle. (see little blue bus photo) I asked Rani the other day what it is called, and though she could not tell me, she did tell me that in Sri Lanka the brides wear white veils as well, like the tree. The shrubbery that I mistook for box hedge is blooming with quarter sized white flowers, closest in scent to mock orange blossom.

The Bank Maynah birds and doves are in the trees, singing and cooing. On the grassy strip among the palm trees that make up the meridian a snowy white egret is stalking bugs in the grass on long legs. When we go running, there is nothing Thomas likes more than when the birds get stirred up by the oncoming stroller, and if we're really lucky we disturb a Sandgrouse which whirrs away in protest.

There are two shopping areas within easy walking distance for us; both center around a grocery store called Spinneys. The larger area is next to a beautiful mosque, which is where we hear the call to prayer from our home if we have the windows open. There are three entrances to the mosque, the Ladies, Gents and the Imam House entrance. The Imam is the leader of prayer, like a priest or a rabbi. There are sandals lined up just outside up on the steps, and further out by us, beyond the gates, are bicycles with all sort of gardening tools strapped on. During prayer times the Mercedes and Bentleys join the bicycles.

We go past the outdoor eating areas, where people are lounging under large umbrellas and being cooled by large air conditioning units as they drink coffee and smoke hubbly bubblies. And then we go into the shopping area.

to be continued...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

That would be something to meet you in the falling rain

Gecko on the pumpkin sprouts (pumpkin sprouts, pumpkin sprouts)

This morning it rained. Thunder, lightning, whipping winds blowing flowers from the trees, the works.

It was marvelous.

The kids were ecstatic. Apparently you can take the kids out of the Pacific NW, but you can't take the NW out of these kids. Rubber boots went on ASAP. Lots of air sniffing, running around, jumping on the wet grass.

One day later for those pumpkin plants. I'll try very hard not to make you look at them again (at least until they bloom!) and will post something substantial next time, I promise.

Friday, November 14, 2008

To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season..

After Halloween we saved the seeds from the pumpkin, thinking we'd toast them up for snacks. However, embarassingly, we haven't done the proper steps to getting our oven to work yet.

So the seeds sat in the refrigerator for over a week until I figured there was no way I'd be feeding them to the kids.

Impulsively I tossed the big pile of seeds into a large pot and dumped some potting soil on top of them. Two days later the pot exploded with pumpkin sprouts! You can see the pumpkin seeds, to give you a sense of perspective.

The kids and I think this is awesome. The sprouts below were growing so hard they were pushing the dirt and the sprouts above up and out of the pot.

I assumed that everything grew so quickly here thanks to the usual desert pattern of life, with a short wet time and chance to grow. As these pumpkin seeds (and these kids) are from the USA, I think maybe there's more to it...

Yesterday I moved the top layer of sprouts to another pot to uncover the swelling masses of more pumpkin plants below. Here is this morning. how much a kg for orange pumpkins, I could have myself a booming home business...unfortunately there isn't much of a market for carving pumpkins at Christmastime.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Wow! I feel good, I knew that I would...

So good, so good, (all together now) I got you!!!
Yes, the entire family is finally, finally legit. We are now officially Residents in the United Arab Emirates.

2 years ago, who would've thunk?

Thomas thinks it's super.

It feels so good to have our passports back. To not wonder about exactly what do those Middle Eastern jails look like from the inside? (This is still one of our top goals defining a Successful Venture).

The best part of getting residency in the UAE is now we can leave the country. Actually, the best part is that we can come back after leaving the country.

We're already planning the weekend. Stay tuned.

So, here are Thomas and my passports. Note that Thomas is now officially a child, I'm officially a housewife (oy) and that they spelled my last name incorrectly.

It's spelled correctly on the American part of the passport, and pretty darned close there. This Residence form is basically a big sticker they pasted inside the pages of our passports. I expect that US Customs will be much more interested in us when we come back to the states for a visit. Should be good clean family fun all around. Really.

To round out the happiness quotient for the day, here are some photos from the Pacific NW sent to me by some lovely friends, just to remind me that the forecast for today is not 85 degrees everywhere.

Spiderwebs by Sherri Peterson

Looking Up by Megan Penny

Thanks to both of you for the autumn photos, your thoughtfulness, and your friendship.

From my neck of the, er, woods (gosh, that expression just doesn't work here. My corner of the sandbox? Sounds terrible.)

Peach Oleander


Bethy and Thomas exhibiting typical November behaviour: eating homemade popsicles on the lawn. Remember the fresh juices? This is an excellent way for the kids to enjoy them.

Life is good.

A postscript. As I was formatting this blog entry Thomas got ahold of a bag of brown sugar (how did THAT get left out...?) and quietly but thoroughly decorated the entire dining room with "OOH pretty sugar sparkles." I looked up from the laptop when he said that, alas too late to prevent the impromptu sticky creativity, but at least in time to save the other half of the kg bag. In other words, I just spent half an hour cleaning up more than a pound of brown sugar...

I really, really hope you enjoyed this blog entry! :)