Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who says you can't go home?

While Mike and I were doing all the preparations to move back to the States, I kept thinking back to the 4th of July.

Now, the evening of the 3rd of July Bethy and I had been sitting on the grass before the Predictor run, she painting my nails (which I endured, much to the amusement of the other runners) when one of my Scottish friends queried So, whatta ye be doin' tomorrow fer yer special American day, it is tomorrow, right? How do all of ye celebrate, then?

I explained that the big things to do are to light fireworks, but that I didn't know where to buy them in the UAE, and to spend time with family and eat, especially hotdogs. Ugh, hotdogs, shuddered the Scot, which I thought a bit unfair coming from a fellow whose country invented haggis.

Bethy asked me then. "Mom, what's the 4th of July?"


Yes, time to take the kids home.

Partial education for her until then: our last Independence Day abroad we held a party for all our American expat friends away from their country and families. One of our guests, a Mexican-American, showed me how to make a Mexican-style hotdog, and I have to share how to make those with you as I may never go back: chopped tomatoes, onions, sour cream and bacon, with optional salsa and jalapenos. Lordy, was that tasty.

Letter from Bethy to her Grandma

The day to get on the plane came. Actually the night, since our flight was at 3:15 AM. We were once again going with the clothes on our backs, three suitcases and three carry-ons, though this time we also had a shipping container to catch up with us later, full of beautiful antique wood furniture and memories of life abroad.

To go with us, I had packed things like Halloween costumes, on the off chance that our container didn't make it to the States in time, and the few long sleeved outfits the kids had. The kids, for their part, chose most favored toys that they couldn't live a couple of months without.

Thomas made it very clear that his scooter HAD to come to come with, and though it folded up nicely, it did take a good portion of the suitcase.

About this time the water heater in the ceiling of the kitchen decided to rust through, dumping copious amounts of water. There is nothing funner than finding coming home to find carefully packed boxes of paperwork and books soaked, and two inches of water on the floor. Makes a fabulous impression on the people coming over who want to buy your refrigerator and oven, by the way.

And then there was the dishwasher...but maybe I'll save that story for another day.

I ended up repacking several times, making sure each piece was under the 20 kg limit as set by our first flight from Dubai to Amsterdam. You see, Mike had found us a flight that only had 2 hours of layover in Amsterdam instead of 6. Awesome, right?

However, the flight was on an Indonesian airline called Garuda. Garuda had been banned from European Union airspace for some time due to their abysmal safety record, but has recently earned its way back in. We told each other this undoubtedly made it a now even more safety-conscious and scrutinised airline than other airlines. Really.

Friends were helpful, saying things like only if I had no other choice would I fly Garuda.

Highly reassuring.

Then there was the question, would the airlines transfer our checked baggage from the Garuda plane to the Delta plane or would I have to somehow get it, check it, and make it back to the security area for our flight, two tired kids in tow? You are required to be at the security area an hour before your flight, leaving me with one hour, assuming the plane was on time...

Did I mention that I was travelling back to the States alone with the kids? That's right. Mike was going to fly out a week later. But that's another story...

Anyway, this was solo parenting through time zones once again. Very character building.

I spent a goodly amount of time and earned a few gray hairs making expensive and unhelpful long distance calls to Delta airlines. I'd already failed to garner much from internet research trying to figure out if there was a luggage agreement between their airline and Garuda. I'd also tried to find a phone number and then someone who spoke English with Garuda, which also came up a big fat zero.

Finally I ended up calling Expedia, where we'd gotten our tickets in the first place. Wouldn't you know it, they called Delta for me, (while I languished on hold, praying the call wouldn't get dropped), they knowing the correct back numbers not available to us mere passengers. After all those calls and worries, it turned out our luggage would indeed be automatically transferred from one plane to the other and I would only have to wrangle the kids and carry-ons. Yes!

It says something that I was excited to "only" have to deal with kids and carry-ons.

Mike dropped us off that the airport around 11, even though the flight was at 3:15, worried that we might need extra time at the airport. He'd had our UAE Residencies cancelled, and it seemed like everything was in order, but you never know. We had decided to keep the kids awake, rather than wake them in the middle of the night, so that they might sleep on the first plane.

Thomas managed to stay awake until 12:15, when they opened the check-in counter (until then we shared our once-again lifesaving portable DVD player with other small children waiting through the ungodly hours.) At the ticket counter the fellow in front of me was told in no uncertain terms that he could not have overweight luggage, and that he could either leave some things behind or buy another suitcase and pay for the additional checked luggage.

He went the second route and bought another suitcase. I felt really sorry for him.

Since we still had three hours to burn, security being expeditious as usual (and the passport control Emirati making sure to tell us he hoped we'd enjoyed living in his country, which I thought was a very nice thing to say), we decided to go and see if a teddy bear Bethy had lost in the airport the last time we went through had been turned in.

Thomas conked out on the bench, completely worn out, as we waited for the staff to go check.

Finally one of the staff came back.

Bethy: "Did you find my Snowy Bear?"

Staff member: "I think it has been destroyed, incinerated as it was not claimed. You understand, put in the fire?"

Yikes! Way to break it to her gently. Fortunately she reacted extraordinarily well, especially since it was something like one in the morning.

The Emirati was not actually heartless, by the way, just straightforward. He encouraged us to stay on the nice seats near security so Thomas could sleep, though I was too nervous about being away from a clock, and our flight to take him up on the offer.

When it was time to get on the flight, a nice fellow from Goa, India who works for the airline came up and volunteered to carry everything but Thomas onto the plane, before the rest of the passengers were allowed to board. This was an awesome deal, except that I couldn't find our boarding pass tabs. I had a passport pouch around my neck for important paperwork and I knew I'd put them in there...and it turned out I had, but, tiredly, I couldn't find them until I'd worked up into an embarrassed panic.

No matter, they were found (in a particularly sneaky inner pocket of the thing) and we boarded, while the fellow from Goa hoisted our carry-ons and told us all about how much he hates Dubai. I think he was mostly missing his family, which which I could sympathise, and didn't mention that we were going home "for good".

Once on the plane something new and unlooked for happened: almost all the passengers gathered blankets and started making out beds out across three or four seats apiece. The plane was largely empty, so they could, the 4 seat center rows being a hot commodity. I stayed put, sure the flight attendants would soon come along, chastise the lougers and make everyone buckle up and sit properly for takeoff.

Not hardly. The cabin lights were turned off before the plane even started its taxi. The safety film was very short and very quiet. By the time we reached altitude all the seat groupings around us were filled with those bunked down, and it was then that I realised that the seats reclined only the tiniest bit. Suddenly lying down across seats with a couple of blankets seemed like a really capital idea...and as I had foolishly waited rather than doing what all those around me were doing, I was out of luck.

I could have found a spot with vacant seats, but not near the kids. There was no getting around it, this was going to be an uncomfortable flight.

So the kids and all the other passengers and the flight staff and possibly the pilots slept well, hour after hour, and I sat there with a rotten crick from that fabulous neck snap up again and again as I'd almost go to sleep, then not.

Late in the flight the kids didn't even rouse when overhead came the request for a doctor or nurse on board to help with some sort of medical emergency. Fortunately for us and the patient, we were only an hour out from Amsterdam so the plane kept going.

By this point I got up and tried to lie down next to Bethy, which wouldn't have worked even had she not been the second squirmiest child in the universe (Thomas being the first), but there simply wasn't space for two on the seats anyway. Drat. Not a wink of sleep for the first 6 1/2 hours, which added up to no sleep since the morning before, putting me at some 27 hours of being awake.

Amsterdam was a bit of a blur, I know we bought some chocolate and got onto the correct flight with both kids, all the carry-ons, and no trouble, but the details are a little hazy.

Now the kids were relatively rested, certainly too awake to go back to sleep, and I was a total zombie. I would have liked to go to sleep, but as far as I could figure there was no way to get away with it. No matter how good of travellers our kids are, they simply can't be left completely unsupervised for 10 hours on a plane. So I tried to watch movies with little success, (I couldn't even tell you what the films were, seriously,) helped the little ones with airplane food, making the TV work, and getting to the bathroom at regular intervals.

There wasn't much of anything for Thomas to watch. Bless his heart, he was patient and good anyway.

Bethy's take on the flight. Note the heart containing our three names, so sweet.

Again, about an hour out from our destination, this time SeaTac International, the intercom buzzed, requesting a doctor and also a Russian translator. I always feel a little guilty about not being qualified to help out in such situations. What are the odds of being on two flights with two medical emergencies? Poor dears.

We got into SeaTac (now at 39 hours of no sleep for me) and they allowed the passengers on one side of the plane to disembark, but not the other. Which, of course, was where we were. So we stayed, and got to see the Seattle EMT squad come in and do their thing. Impressive. After the patient was wheeled out, we were allowed to get up.

Ah...Seattle air. Much cooler.

Then we gathered 2 of 3 of our suitcases from the conveyor belt. 2 out of AWOL.

I wasn't too bothered, figuring it would find it's way home eventually. Then there was filling out paperwork, the loving embraces of patiently waiting family, the drive home...and I think I made it until 4 or 5 pm and that was it...I was utterly done.

No bed has ever felt as good as that one, with the comfortable knowledge that there were other loving adults to watch over the kids. Yay Grandparents.

The next few days while I drooled and stumbled over myself in that inimitable jetlagged way I couldn't decide...should I try to adjust to Pacific Standard Time, or stay -sort of- on Dubai time?

Because, you see, I was flying back to Amsterdam in less than a week to meet up with Mike. He would be coming out of Dubai then. And then the two of us had breezily planned to gallivant off on a just us no kids vacation.

Oh yes.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

With a little help from my friends...

I feel like such a

posting this. Actually, like a herd of them. I am not great at asking for help.'s time.

OK folks. Encourage me. I am officially, creatively stuck. I have SO much I want to share with you about leaving Dubai and the trip Mike and I took, and coming home to the USA, and usually I have what Stephen King once poetically (but accurately) described as "diarrhea of the keyboard" (hey, he's a horror writer, what can you do?) but lately, I am not feeling the love.

What's up with that?

I should mention that a huge part of my problem is that I'm off running until further notice...yes, injured again. Me and John Bingham, the Penguin, have the same thing, plantar fasciitis, and we're both sidelined from the sport we love. What freaks me out is that I've taken what to me is a staggering 6 weeks off, yet that's barely anything...some cases take years to get to the point where they can run again. I'm doing everything right to heal, but I should also suck it up and go to the gym to swim or do weights...and I will...I guess...

Whining about running aside, any helpful tips for getting over a writing hangover? Throw stuff out at me, whatever you've got, I'll take it!

Thanks for letting me whimper, everyone, hope you'll be patient with me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Baby we were born to run

Three crazy runners, flinging their sweaty headgear up into the air

I posted a "FLY HOME" countdown in the kitchen which dwindled down from double to single digits all too rapidly. Suddenly we were driving a rental car, packing our bags, and everything that used to be everyday was becoming "last-time".

This was hard with places, harder with people. Dubai expats are depressingly good at good-byes. Lots of practice, you see.

I have mentioned before that we have two groups of friends in Dubai, which overlap slightly. One group is Mike's co-workers. The other group consists of my running buddies. To celebrate and say our farewells to the first group, we went out for a typically Dubai-esque and therefore lavish Friday Brunch with some 30 folks from Mike's work. While there I discovered a particularly fabulous cocktail. Martini glasses filled with snow-white cotton candy, over which was poured fresh lime juice and gin.

Twas tasty, and quite beautiful. I made sure to appreciate several of them.

The other group. the runners, was, for me, harder to say good-bye to. For one thing, once you've run with someone else mad enough to attempt it in the Middle East, there's a certain indescribable camaraderie that runs deep.

So I ran one last nighttime run with Graham along our route on Umm Sequim Beach, the light show of the Burj Al Arab above us, the adhān (Islamic call to prayer) ringing out from the mosques and through the dark around us as we pounded the sidewalks and jumped over fishing lines strung out to dry. It was 106 degrees when we finished.

And a last run with Vicki and Linda, so humid that the camera lens fogged and fogged again from the heat and we couldn't get a great photo. Probably best, we were soaked and not looking our feminine best.

Then a last early morning distance run with the Dubai Creek Striders, having somehow convinced John and Nigel to join me (fools), including a brief, refreshing respite on an abra (water ferry) across Dubai Creek at the middle of the 17 kilometers (a lifesaver, we really were dying and desperate for a break), and posing with the iconic Emirates Towers after we completed the darn thing.

We might have been a little punchy.

The most touching good-bye of all, in many ways, was the last Predictor race Bethy and I ran at Safa Park.

Nigel, Bethy, the spire of the Burj Khalifa, John, and me. Yes, I generally wear a dorky headscarf, and yes, Bethy is in a ballet outfit.
That's how we roll.

Here she is, flying to the finish line. Even though I was accused, half in jest, of child abuse for allowing her to run in the hideous heat, all the Dubai Road Runners cheered her in.

She is running with John and that huffing and puffing is probably me trying to recover from my two lap craziness.

Some things are just wonderful. No matter where she goes, I know Bethy will get the same strength and pride from knowing that she ran in Dubai, with the love and encouragement of her friends and family.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

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

And now for something completely different.

From the world of scrabbling for a few dirhams to being above it all. Literally.

Perhaps you've heard of the Burj Khalifa. It would be the tallest building in the world. At 2,716.5 feet it is the equivalent of stacking 4 1/2 of Seattle's Space Needle on top of one another, which would be quite the balancing trick. Another Guinness Book of World Records experience for us? Yeah, we're there!

Actually, it holds seven world records.

You can see the Burj Khalifa from really, really far away, and it's both impressive and beautiful, especially when the light reflects off it at certain times of the day.

I couldn't get a photo of the whole thing. That's big.

The opening ceremony in January was an over-the-top fireworks display like nothing ever seen before. Visualise the Space Needle again, this time on New Years Eve, with the fireworks shooting off it. Now multiply by 4 1/2. I can't believe nothing caught on fire.

It was going to be called the Burj Dubai, and we'd called it that all the time it was being built, but in a surprise move, Sheikh Mohammad renamed it Khalifa as a nice thank-you for the monetary bail out of Dubai by Abu Dhabi.

Sometimes, a Hallmark card simply isn't enough.

I was a little sad several times when I read international news descriptions of the Burj Khalifa that said things along the lines of a dark spire stabbing into the burning sky, as if it housed the Eye of Sauron from Tolkien, perhaps.

Why the negative journalism, again? This is cool stuff, people!

I mean, the scope of this project is wild.

Even if I set the Burj Khalifa aside, I could write and write about the many buildings of Dubai, and how amazing the skyline is. The man-made islands are pretty stinkin' cool too. I kept hoping some enterprising company would give engineering and architecture tours of the city.*

Ah well.

Being on the world's tallest elevator ride alone would be, to my way to thinking, well worth the (online) price of admission. Online, adult tickets were 100 AED apiece -$27.22- and considering that I paid 50 AED apiece to take the kids to 3-D Toy Story 3, well, not bad. If you showed up to buy them at the Burj Khalifa ticket window, though, heaven help you. There the going rate is 400 AED -$108.91- apiece, which is kind of crazy even by Dubai standards.

The elevator had some issues not long after the tower opened early in the year, so they closed it to the public. People getting stuck in an elevator is not so great for tourism or the reputation of the city, you see. We'd kept our fingers crossed as the weeks and then months dragged by, that would open up again for visitors before we left Dubai for good. did.

I won't deny that it crossed my mind more than once that getting stuck in an elevator somewhere between the ground and 124th floor would not be the best of times, but this vague and mostly unfounded nervousness was easily overruled by our most basic rule: if it's a once in a lifetime opportunity sort of experience with a high likelihood of survival, do it.

We showed up at our assigned time, and once through the initial line and friendly security, found ourselves walking a somewhat long distance from the entrance at the Dubai Mall to the core of the building, made entirely painless by lots of educational and interesting displays and visuals about the history of Dubai and the Burj Khalifa, and hey, why not, an occasional moving sidewalk.

Also the heady scent of money, which made us a bit euphoric as we breathed it in deeply.

The actual elevator lobby is swank and dark, adding to the mystery and anticipation. Velvet ropes and beautifully uniformed staff, Arabic music swelling and wrapping around us.

And...the elevator. I was slightly disappointed that we couldn't see out of it. A dark enclosure, with a sort of light show and music to keep us entertained for the 60 second ride. Wait, 60 seconds to ascend 124 floors?

On second thought, it was a good thing we couldn't see out. One would need the stomach of a fighter pilot. That meant, at 124 floors in 6o seconds, the world's fastest elevator goes an average of 33 feet a second. Twice that at top speed.

As it was, the ride was smooth, pleasant, and was it just me or were they still piping in that money scent? Mmmmm.

The doors opened and we stepped out to the Observation Deck. Not the highest on in the world, would you believe (the tallest one is at the Shanghai World Financial Center) but, ohmigosh, this one is not only inside like in Shanghai, but also outside.

Whoa. Hadn't been prepared for that. And boy, was it ever straight down.

To give you some perspective, the tallest building we're looking down at on the left there is the Address Hotel, which is 63 stories high. The other skyscrapers look insignificant, don't they?

There was another view from the observation deck, straight up, which was dizzying. Above us were another 40-some floors, including the world's highest mosque on the 158th floor. Talk about a place to worship.

I admit it, I skittered inside. It was too high and bright and...yeah. A few minutes of that was good for me. Inside were huge windows, nice solid walls and air conditioning, thank goodness for that. And more views.

What views.

Sheikh Zayed Road, the major highway though the city, and downtown Dubai, the Gulf beyond.

You could walk 360 degrees around, looking out west to the World Islands being built,

east to the desert, south to the Palm Islands, Dubai Marina and the Burj al Arab, and north to the city. It was strange to see the cityscape and not see the Burj Khalifa.

Thomas and Mike, checking it out

I got kind of a kick out of the AT THE TOP merchandise available for purchase. Hey, if you've got it, flaunt it, right? I figure they earned bragging rights, to be sure. Along the lines of earning it, however, those water bottles on the second shelf are 299 AED. Somehow I managed to resist.

The impressively large Burj Khalifa-shaped camel milk chocolate (see top of entry for photo) was slightly more tempting, but since even a little piece of camel milk chocolate bought at ground level is indulgently priced, I didn't even bother to look to see how much they were. Best not to know.

Visibility out the windows, the real reason we were there, was good but not great, what with the early ever-present sand hanging in the air. Not surprisingly, the designers had thought of that and installed special telescopes all around that would show you not only what you were looking at, but with the touch of a button, what it would look like on a clear day, and what it looked like at night.

This was pretty darned cool, and I was impressed, but after the kids found Safa park, they were ready to go find some lunch.

Apparently it's hard to impress a Dubai kid. Yeah, Mom, it's cool, but you know, a pizza and some Magnolia cupcakes would be even better.

Oh, fine then. Be that way.

Back down the super awesome elevator, though more exhibits, which Mike and I were far more interested in than the kids would ever be,

Check this out! The original proposed model for the Burj Khalifa

and the kids' reactions as they loll on what is undoubtedly VERY expensive designer furniture

Were we impressed? Yes. Was it strangely anti-climactic to be there? Also yes. I don't know why, and that's OK. The Burj Khalifa literally stands alone as an achievement the attests to what people can accomplish if they set their minds to it and, as Dubai is well known for, refuse to see limits.

We were there, even if we didn't fork out for the T-shirts.

*The Discovery Channel has a show, Impossible City, about Dubai that I highly recommend. Here is a link to the part about the Burj Khalifa (which they refer to as the Burj Dubai) and our beloved Burj Al Arab: . Well worth 9 minutes of your time, in my admittedly biased opinion. You can really get a sense of what an enormously, unfathomably HUGE building the Burj Khalifa is, and what an undertaking it was to build it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gettin' had, gettin' took, I tell you folks it's harder than it looks

I am going to give you one of the best pieces of advice any expat can give another:

Never, ever, by all that is good and holy, try to hold a garage sale in the Middle East.

No, really, I mean it. We would spare you that pain.

Now, a garage sale should be simple enough, right? Sort through all our stuff (see above) and sell or give away, oh, 3/4 of it.

Yeah, simple. Right.

The initial result was several piles and then sub piles and then more sub-piles and also the opportunity to re-raise the question that Mike had been asking nearly the entire 2 years of our expat experience: Natalie, how (and why) did you manage to acquire all this crap while living abroad?

Sometimes you have to roll your eyes and change the subject. I was getting pretty good at it, too. Knowing full well we have an entire storage unit of stuff back in the States, I had hoped to have become the very epitome of streamlined living, sensible, organised, and ready to pick up and move at any moment.

Yeah, right.

It was hard work but, sniping aside, rather freeing to sort out all our stuff. The kids were great about narrowing their possessions to one box of toys apiece. We had decided long ago to bring home our Persian carpets, of course, and the beautiful carved antique wood furniture. We'd bought those as investments, and because they made us happy, but most of the rest of it was slated for the chopping block.

Two Indian schoolgirls knocked on the door asking if they could clean the carport, despite the midday heat, for some spending money. I thought this fortuitous and was impressed by their enterprising spirit. For less than the price of a latte and cupcake I had a nice clean carport. They even put the swept sand into the bin instead of out on the street.

As soon as I listed the sale online I began to get phone calls. Did I have this? Did I have that?

One woman really took the cake. She wanted a Little Tikes kitchen set. This I had, and described it to her. She got pushy, then pushier. I was to give her a hefty discount, (why I'm not sure,) and then hold it for her until after the garage sale, when she could send her driver to come get it, then, when I had agreed to all of this, would I send her a photograph of it to make sure it was what she wanted, and by the way did I have any Gucci purses or high-end designer clothing?

Oh, for crying out loud...

The photo I sent, stipulating that the kid was not for sale, at any price.

This should have been a portent of things to come, but we marched optimistically on.

Beginning to set out things in the carport at 6:15 in the morning, it was already hot and humid, and getting hotter every minute. I made nice little piles of stuff, with room to wander through, and had advertised a "special deal" online for potential shoppers: fill a bag for all they could stuff into it for 30 dirhams. (About 8 bucks.) I thought this was clever. Make some money, reduce haggling, get rid of stuff, good for everyone, right?

My first customer came wheeling by within minutes, a Filipina nanny, pushing a pram. She began to take things from the carport floor, until I finally got through to her that I was going to sell the stuff.

Ah, so sorry madam, so sorry!

Immediately she started helping me to set things out, even taking things from me she deemed too heavy. I'm not sure what her motivation was. The working class here are often uncomfortable watching us delicate white ladies doing any sort of manual, oh, pushing a grocery cart or wiping a child's nose. It just isn't done.

Except of course by stubborn and strange individuals like myself.

I'm not terribly teachable on certain points, even with patience, though many have tried.

I wasn't sure what to do about this Fillipina maid helping. I tried to stop her, which proved impossible. The maids have an impressive survival skill, deliberate or not, that causes them to suddenly lose their hearing and/or ability to understand English.

Once I recognised what was happening, I knew it would be useless to protest. (OK, so I'm not completely unteachable.) Should I pay her, and if so, how much? What if her employers came along and saw their little boy parked alongside the sidewalk while she neglected him?

I decided to thank her profusely and told her to take anything she wanted. The smile I got in return and the lessening of discomfort was worth whatever she took, which ended up being a pretty good pile.

It was coming up on 7 AM. I was hoping to go inside and have a quick bowl of cereal. We'd decided that 8 AM was a good start time, figuring people might come a little early, but not that much earlier than that.

Then it happened.

I had mentally prepared for an onslaught of maids, the occasional wily housewife who liked a bargain, and little kids. I figured I could deal with the first two, and give the kids really great deals and throw in lots of free stuff to make their money go far.

What I was not prepared for was six or seven cars pulling up all at once, way before opening time, jostling for sidewalk parking spaces.

Out of each of these cars came 3 or 4 men. What the...?

In a brilliantly conceived formation attack, they swarmed. I have never seen anything like this. Suddenly the carport was utterly inundated with swarthy Middle Eastern men, perhaps of Iranian origin, though we never did find out. Mike thought they might have been Pakistani merchants.

It didn't matter where they were from, these guys were pros, and we, well, we were not.

All is fair in love, war, and apparently also in garage sales held by wussy white folk. Thickly accented and clever eyed, they circled and pounced like hyenas. In the herd of yardsellers, we were a sickly weak member, and as is the way of things, we needed to be weeded out to keep the rest strong.

Within moments I knew we were outgunned in every way. Had I priced things instead of trying for the 30 dirham stuff-a-bag deal, perhaps it might have gone better, but without prices marked, it was open season. The men swirled around me like a bad music video gone awry. I was getting thoroughly confused as to who was asking what about which, and it didn't help when they would come back with the same item three or four times, and if they didn't get the price they wanted, they passed it to a friend and sent him in for a go. Stating prices I knew to be reasonable received a scoff or hurt look. The game seemed to be pay a tenth of the asked price.

Sometime early in the melee one asked about small kitchen appliances. Now, here I had really tried to be on top of things. I had each appliance sparkly clean, displayed inside the house along the kitchen counter with the box and manual behind each.

The idea was that Mike would take interested people in one at a time to look the items over. This also might have worked except that the man asked if his friend could come along. Mike made the colossal mistake of agreeing, which opened the floodgates and several men tromped into the house. Well, that didn't go to plan.

I managed not to blubber or beg Mike not to go, leaving me to the rest of the sharks. You know how sometimes a shark will swim up to something like, say, a surfer, and not sure if that thing is food or not, take a test bite? Well, we were past that. There was blood in the water and the feeding frenzy was gearing up.

They rotated in tag teams, playing good cop bad cop, being pleasant, intimidating, scathing, gentle, as rapid fire as a machine gun, with some pawing through everything, and others lining up behind me, leaning against the wall and watching the white woman fumble and sweat, struggling to have any sort of control over what was happening with our stuff.

Their being behind me was incredibly uncomfortable in an area of the world where sexism is quite normal, unquestioned, alive and well. Being in a soaked shirt, in the heat, surrounded by men speaking another language which I couldn't understand (which made me think it must have been Farsi), well, talk about being in a poor position for negotiation.

45 minutes of total agony later it was all over. At one point I had whimpered to Mike (begging your forgiveness for the phrase) "I'm getting raped out here." "I'm getting raped in here" he moaned back, "what do you want me to do?"

The horde left as suddenly as they had appeared, arms full of loot, off to prayer. Oh, thank God. Literally.

Looking over the destruction left behind, Mike and I ascertained we still had two kids, tried to gather up the shredded remnants of our egos, and realised it was just about time for the garage sale to start.

I can't speak for Mike, but I no longer cared very much. Halfheartedly, I tried to organise the sad remains into some sort of order while we started to compare notes.

Outside, I had sold the ironing board and iron for the equivalent of $2.72. Again and again I would settle on a price even lower than I ever thought I would accepted for things and then the men would press even less money into my hand and try to walk away with the items.

There was a lot of bait and switch, and even one man who asked me how much some linens were, and then didn't even look embarrassed when I pointed out that he also had 8 other items in the bag beneath the linens. I had two or three of these men asking me how much something was at once, circling, feinting, then rotating out and letting the next team hit me up. I don't think anything walked away without being paid for; obviously there were some rules. A Pirate Code, if I'm not mistaken.

Inside my head there was some loud self-talk hollering: ACK! NO! STOP! All of you GET OUT!!!

But I'm too well brought up for such a tantrum, and I'm pretty sure they would have been surprised had I actually hauled off and let them have it. They were having the times of their lives, and, we figured out later, restocking their resale stores for practically nothing. Playing the game as they had their entire lives, it was not their fault I was the rawest of raw rookies trying to play with the big boys.

Not only that, but what if I'd thrown a fit, ordered them out, and they hadn't left?

Inside the house, Mike had also tried to corral the men with no success whatsoever. They were opening drawers and cupboards, going through all our things in the rooms, asking repeatedly if this that or the other thing was for sale, undeterred in the least by his no, no NO replies.

One man bought the microwave and then ate the package of cookies that was sitting on top of it. He at least had the grace to look a little embarrassed when Mike saw him and gestured to the few remaining crumbs for permission from Mike to finish them off. Like Mike would have said no at that point.

I would have to say that the cookie muncher was the best behaved of all of them, and he paid an OK price for the microwave, at least in comparison. Mike was harried and harassed down to his last nerve. He sold all of the carefully cleaned and displayed kitchen gear for about what one of them was worth. I deserve some sort of Wife Award for not giving him grief about the espresso machine. He, of course, deserves a husband award for the entire situation. You know, the one where he puts up with my nutty self, ideas, and all the crap I bring home.

At some point Mike had realised, and nearly panicked, that he had left the stack of cash we'd gotten for selling two of our cars, dirhams worth nearly $20,000, on his desk in his office with the door slightly open. I had noticed it and put it under a pile of paperwork, on the off chance that someone could see it through the window, but he didn't know that. The pile remained unscathed, fortunately, which was a huge relief.

We agreed that our favorite fellow was one who came outside and told me, "your husband says he will let me buy the air purifier (which cost us 1300 new and was in perfect working condition, with the box) for 30 dirhams." I looked aghast at him. "Good gracious," I said, "will you at least give us 50?"

The fellow went back inside. "Your wife says the price for this thing is 50." Fortunately Mike wasn't taken in, having bought the air purifier himself. The fellow argued back and forth (keep in mind that this is while others are still going through our house and Mike was trying to keep an eye on all the men in the different rooms and fend off other negotiators,) but Mike refused to be taken in, even when the man tried to put a 50 AED bill in his hand, the purifier beneath his arm and ready to leave. One point for Mike.

a great sign at the Eat and Drink in Dubai

I was drenched and felt used and tired and lousy about the whole thing. The Filipina maid had stood by mutely for much of the proceedings, with the expression one might have observing an unsavable flood victim being swept downstream. She, pleasingly, at least did not look gratified. I gave her all she asked for and bid her and her small and very patient charge good bye.

There were other things that happened that morning. The heat continued, 110, 115, I think the hottest was 118 while we were out there, which was plenty, especially with the high humidity.

I was terribly apologetic to the folks who showed up on time for the sale to start...and I didn't have all that much to offer them. At that point I was beaten down and conditioned to accept pretty much any amount offered to me, so those folks at least got really good deals. More than one person was rather taken aback. Really? Are you sure? they would ask. "Yes, yes, do enjoy," I would say, "sorry it's so hot, sorry there isn't so much left."

And then the bus showed up. Literally. These nice folks were from the Phillipines, were polite, if very frugal. The range of people who showed up was interesting, from nice to incredibly demanding. (I was giving out cold bottled water, still or sparkling and one woman complained I didn't do so quickly enough in her case. Considering that I wasn't charging for them and she didn't buy anything, I thought her a bit rude.) There was a steady trickle of folks for the next while, and then I pushed it all to the side and put a "FREE" sign on the remnants of a once-proud garage sale, and went inside.

I have run for the same amount of time under the blazing desert sun and not been half as tired as I was when I called it a day that morning.

There is a positive post script to this lesson, however.

When I first posted the sale online, I also got an email from a Filipina named Galilee (isn't that a lovely name?) saying that she was quite poor, had no furniture, and could she come get anything left over after the sale? I had a sofa bed that I was going to give away, actually, and told her she was quite welcome to it, and anything else for that matter.

While I was waiting for Galilee and her friends to arrive I heard rustling out in the garage and peeked out in time to see some Sri Lankan maids rooting through the leftovers, one having secured one of my fancy hats that I'd decided not to keep. She put it on immediately, this Ascot looking creation, and beamed, quite pleased with herself.

Galilee arrived soon thereafter, with a moving van and three friends. Round faced and pleasant, they worked fast and hard and not only moved the sofa bed and cushions, with some linens thrown in, but also completely cleaned out the garage area, sweeping it tidy and empty afterwards.

Then we went inside and slept like rocks in the blessed air conditioning.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: out in the desert you can see some unusual and often amusing sights. One of my many quirks (again, a relatively harmless one) is to snap photos of signs, along the lines of Lonely Planet's Signspotting. Here are the ones I got this trip: First, darned appropriate,

I am sorry to keep harping on how hot is was, but really, that kind of heat drives everything else out of your mind.

These signs don't really make the grade, unless they were intended to communicate "Windy! Very windy!"

You can see how the bright desert light overwhelmed my camera. JeepJeep's windows are well tinted, and good thing too. Every time we got out of the car to look at something there were moments of blindness while our eyes tried to adjust to the desert sun, a challenge even with hats and sunglasses.

Then there was this sign, which seemed a little redundant.

Isn't it a bit like stating "watch for icy conditions" in Antarctica?

I'm just saying.

This next one I found utterly charming.

Isn't it great? Where else in the world would you see such a thing? Unfortunately for us, the incinerator-like conditions prevent such events from happening in the summertime, so we didn't see any racing.

Closest we got was a guy out walking his goat.

This is my favorite speed limit sign of all time, anywhere, ever:

The "steam" rising from the little car is actually the numbers in Arabic "120"...but I always think it looks like the occupants inside are either boiling or swearing. Probably both.

While we're on the topic of cars, let me move the story along. Now, I don't generally make generalisations, but I feel largely comfortable in saying that most Emiratis love cars, they know cars, and they love to drive. Enough of that driving is such that one can't help but notice it is firmly in the realm of insane: speeding, racing, and trick driving all are de rigueur.

Commonly seen, even in the middle of nowhere (perhaps because it is the middle of nowhere) are black skid marks from the tires of cars pulling "doughnuts."

This is one of those things that young, bored men with much money do.

We checked out "Scary Mountain" Tel Moreeb, one of the tallest dunes in the world,

where these same young men racing modified Nissan Patrols try to go fast and hard enough to reach the top without blowing up. Adrenaline junkies, feel free to YouTube Tel Moreeb or Moreeb Dune, but be warned, there are some seriously hair-raising accidents, some of which result in fatalities, so I'm not linking you this time.

While racing is going on there are nice men with fire extinguishers strategically located along the nearly 40 degree slope, and with good reason. We drove up to the dune, looked up and said Ohmigod, that is insane.

Looking at the tracks in the sand, apparently some rotten person had been driving a camel up it earlier in the day.

Poor camel.

Now, not everyone out in the desert has money and cars to burn.

These guys, for instance. Another common sight.

You do recall how hot I said it was, right?

Now, our last destination on our desert adventure was to go see the collection of a man who really, really loves cars.

The pyramid (yes, you read that correctly) of Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, better known as the Rainbow Sheikh, houses his wildly extensive eclectic collection of cars.

Known as the Emirates National Auto Museum, it's free to visit. You drive up and find a parking spot, perhaps next to the Earth trailer home, which, it is rumored, is a 1:1,000,000,000 scale model,

and then you enter the pyramid past the monster truck-esque Mercedes

and proceed out of the hot sun (oh, thank goodness) into a giant hangar to wander paved road aisles between cars in mirrored parking spots.

The aisles are like this in case the Sheikh wants to drive any of his cars, and let me tell you, there are a lot from which to choose. There seems to be no discernible why or wherefore as to the sorts and number (more than 200) of cars he owns...little of this, little of that. Or, I should say, lot of this, lot of that.

What was interesting was that nothing is labelled, nothing is explained, there are no have to figure it out by yourself. Inshallah.

The Rainbow Sheikh has a veritable flock of Mercedes-Benzes, as one might expect from a Sheikh, like this one bling-blinged up with much gold,

Note the rainbow licence plate and the single-digit number. The lower the number, the higher up in the Emirate's ruling family the owner is. For instance, in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad has "1" license plates on all his cars.

Far quirkier than merely a little gold were some Mercedes-Benzes he'd purchased in the 80's, one for each day of the week. He had them custom painted by the apparently accommodating Germans in bright rainbow sherbet shades with rainbow trim; pink, blue, yellow, lime green, candy cane red, orange, and one that was all colors. The cars also had, get this, coordinating rifles in their matching gun racks in the trunks of each.

Bethy was definitely liking the rainbow theme. There truly was something for everyone.

California Highway Patrol car? Check. Queen Elizabeth II's Rolls Royce? Youbetcha. An 1875 steam-powered carriage? Of course. How about a humble NYC taxi? Yup. Rows and rows of Land Rovers and Jeeps from many eras were fun for us, and there was even an off-road 4x4 Lamborghini. I'll bet that wasn't cheap.

When the Sheikh had collected a bunch of cars, he apparently decided to design some too, while he was at it.

They may look outlandish, but before you laugh, it was the 80's or so, and this guy seems to eat, sleep, and breathe cars. He has actually been consulted for his expertise by such companies as Nissan/Renault, and does so gratis.

No surprise. The members of the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi don't exactly worry about money.

Oil, of course, is the reason they needn't worry about such silly things as money, which reminds me, there is one more vehicle I neglected to mention.

The Rainbow Sheikh is extremely fond of the Dodge Power Wagon truck from the 50's.

Why? Simple. The Dodge Power Wagon is the vehicle that was used by early oil prospectors in the Middle East. That truck made him and his family rich beyond any one's wildest imagining, and as Han Solo once said, "I can imagine quite a bit."

So, to top off collecting a whole lot of these trusty little trucks, he also had one built on a grand scale. And by a grand scale, I mean that it is the largest car in the world. By far.

See the regular-sized pickup parked underneath?

The ratio of this truck to a regular-sized one is 64:1. They think it weighs about 55 tons. Not an easy thing to hoist upon a scale.

The wheels are from an oil rig transporter. The windshield wipers are from an ocean liner. It has four bedrooms with all the accoutrements inside, and you can put down the tailgate where it becomes a balcony...and have one heck of a tailgate party.

You have to hand it to the guy, he knows what he likes.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I'll show you a place so high on the desert plain

The dunes of the Empty Quarter desert go on, seemingly forever. But not so for the boundaries of the United Arab Emirates. On JeepJeep's GPS, in the middle of nowhere, a thick dark line appeared, ahead of us on the road. Ah. The Saudi border. Not a line to cross.

We got closer and closer, passing a tiny ghost town on the right, bleached and lonely, being reclaimed by the sands. We got up to the sign below (repeated on the other side of the road in Arabic) and stopped.

Still a good margin of UAE land between us and the thick black line. I stuck my arm out to take a photo of the "no photography" sign, (Mike: they can see you! You're being totally obvious!") but that wasn't good enough and over Mike's feeble protests I hopped out. He knew he'd lost that battle before he began, settling for emphatically requesting a quick return to the car.

No-photography-for-no-good-reason signs make me crazy. I mean, look out there. Desert. That's it. No military compound, no vehicles, nada, nothing. At least, nothing that we could see.

You probably have decided by now that I have a problem with authority. Not so. I have a problem with stupid expressions of authority.

OK, so I have a problem with authority.

Anyway, the point is that we drove up kind of close to the border of Saudi Arabia, looked at it, snapped a couple of photos and got the heck outta there. I may have a problem with authority, but that doesn't mean that I want to poke too sharp of a stick at it. Within poking back range.

Even though there was little to be seen from our vantage point beyond the sand...and radio towers...and those foreboding signs, there were probably some high powered scopes pointed our direction as well. That qualifies as a get in and get out sort of situation.

Heading back the way we'd come, we briefly explored the ghost town, driving slowly past the shells of buildings which were just as empty and sad as we'd thought. Not much beyond a mosque and a missed photo opportunity to park the car at the deserted gas station, but the silence, the overwhelming silence, urged us on and away.

The desert demanded our respect, making it utterly and unmistakably clear that this was not a place that welcomed the living. Yet it was fascinating in its harshness, more than simply heat and sand. The fine sands, ranging in color from burnt orange to palest cream, were beautiful to observe. Here and there an expanse of whiteness bloomed, hard, crumbling fields of salt deposits.

close-up of the 'salts'

Mike and the kids wisely decided not to leave the safety and relative coolness of JeepJeep to explore the salt flats. Not worried by such obvious logic, I clambered out to see, making sure to make each and every member of my family understand how much I love them and that if they saw me disappear to either come rescue me or prepare to be haunted forever by my irritated ghost.

As it turned out, the flats were crunchy and hard, and hollow underneath in some spots, but not worryingly so. We know there is deadly quicksand somewhere in the area, but, apparently, not there.

I was not just exploring the flats for fun. There was also the slimmest chance that perhaps I might have found one of these:

Sometimes the minerals crystallize into a formation called a Desert Rose. Something kind of geeky to want to find, (and to voluntarily face those conditions) but hey, I embrace my inner geek. Not that I would have taken one with us had I found one. I believe they're protected by law. (The one above was in our hotel.)

After the border and the ghost town and the heat and the film melting scenario, we were ready for drinks. To say the least. Sadly for us grown-ups, we had to settle for toasting Mike's birthday with juice. The hotel had lost their liquor permit, we were told in hushed, confidential tones. Our guess is that they had served a Muslim alcohol, which is an illegal act in the Emirates.
Bummer for us, though.

So, we made due with their lovely pool, which felt almost magical after all that sand and heat.

Bethy demonstrating her flying carpet skills.

After having to forcibly extract the children from the pool, I made it clear that the thing to do in Liwa was to go out into the dunes and watch the sunset. The children made it clear that I was an idiot and they wanted nothing more to do with me. Luckily Mike was on my side and between the two of us we overpowered the kids and dragged them out into the dunes again.

A united front. (permit me a burst of evil laughter here...bru hah hah! Ha.)

You would think that finding dunes would be easy, and it should have been, but we needed to find dunes that were nearby and from which we could see the sunset. The sun was heading down and in the Middle East it never reaches the horizon, disappearing somewhere above it into the swirls of sand hanging in the air, and sucking all the light away with it, leaving the lands in darkness.

There is nothing that brings a family more joyfully together on vacation than to try to find someplace when you have no idea where you are going and a time limit.

So it was with glad hearts...OK, so not so much...that we parked JeepJeep and climbed out into the dunes. The allure of the desert quickly swept away any residual trace of crankiness.

Eventually shoes were shed -with the setting sun the sands were cooling, and felt wonderful between toes.

We found a good spot to settle down to watch the sunset, and to watch some Arab boys across the way driving their ATV up and down the steep dunes. The sand makes a low pitched thundering sound when a vehicle slides down it, a sort of sand avalanche, and we enjoyed watching these kids, the older of which was probably all of 10 years old, driving like total maniacs.

A Nissan Patrol like ours that had driven by earlier left the nearby road, swooped across the sands and humped over dunes straight to us. We grabbed up the kids to keep them out of the way, thinking this was just another 4x4er, when to our surprise the truck stopped, the door opened and out stepped a white robed, bearded Emirati, with little children piling out after him.

"Welcome! Welcome!" he boomed, his kids smiling with their beautiful white teeth and dark eyes. They carefully brought a heavy tray enrobed with a blue plastic shopping bag, and offered it to us. We accepted with our best expressions of gratitude and American enthusiasm.

They spoke little English, we even less Arabic, but we held a pseudo conversation with as many gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. The little girl accepted a buss on her cheek but the little boy refused a kiss, instead indicating that I should rub noses with him. That was a first. Absolutely charming.

We tried to explain that we were there to watch the sunset, the father tried to explain that the boys on the ATV were his sons, and after a while I think we figured it all out. With a nod and a wave the father wished us well and they all got back into the Patrol and drove away, leaving us to investigate the package.

It contained fresh yellow dates, at perfect picking stage, barely starting to brown at the edges. Tasty. Liwa is well known for their dates, and it was obvious that they had driven by, seen us, gone to get the dates, and made a special trip to come back and give them to us. We were really touched by a complete stranger and his family's spontaneous gesture of utter thoughtfulness and hospitality.

That's how it is in the desert.

Bethy investigating fresh dates on a tree by the pool.