Drying out? Not likely

Pic courtesy of Rima

One of the more unusual things any new expat needs to contend with in the UAE, is the ‘dry night’. From sundown the day before any religious holiday, until the following sundown, licensed venues are not allowed to serve alcohol.

While this does mean there is no drinking in public, it also means the tradition of the house party is alive and well in Dubai.

Take for instance, this Friday night just gone. Saturday was the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (peace be upon him). This meant half the weekend was ‘dry’. But rather than drying out, someone had the fantastically spontaneous idea (ok, it was me) of hosting a very liquid evening.

Surprisingly, as the word was spread around, it was interesting to hear just how many responses were along the lines of ‘wow, what a great idea, no, we didn’t have anything planned tonight!’. It was as if the whole concept of socializing had not yet been invented.

Anyway, fast forward to Saturday morning, well, afternoon, by the time we actually surfaced and there was many a sore head being reported on Facebook, as well as a mysteriously dodgy knee, sprained ankle and a busted speaker tower (ok, that was me too). Apparently my traffic light jelly shots were the cause of most guests’ chagrin, but I make no apologies for being a great hostess.

Thank you, friends, for keeping the tradition of spontaneous house parties  alive! And thank you, Prophet Muhammad for being born all those hundreds of years ago.

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When the pangs sharpen

I am a seasoned expat. Of the last 12 years, I have lived almost seven of them in the opposite hemisphere. I am used to missing my family and friends (and they are used to missing me). Facebook helps a lot. It is a way to keep up with the day-to-day affairs in loved ones lives. No one would bother saving up a comment on a funny episode of 30 Rock for a letter, or a long email, or even a Skype chat, but when I look at my newsfeed and see those random status updates I get a sense of continuity in people’s lives. Next time we do chat I can tell them I read about their bub’s first tooth; or congratulate them on the fantastic parking spot.

But times like today, Facebook has left me feeling acutely far from home. Via a multi-posted link to the latest promotional campaign for the Sydney Opera House, in fact. If you haven’t played the YouTube link below already, then please do (yes, I’m actually suggesting you stop reading). It’s an all-star Australian ensemble filmed at the most magnificent building in the world, doing a version of Nick Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’. The production values are ofthe highest spec. The camera work (especially the cranes and dollies) is amazing.  I don’t want to say any more, just see for yourself. I’m ready to steer a course for Sydney right now.

Once bitten…

As unlikely as it sounds, until tonight I had never experienced a frozen meal of any kind. I caved last weekend at Carrefour when faced by a delicious looking goats cheese and spinach lasagne. Tonight, arriving home late, with a headache, it seemed like the goods. Exhibit B is why I will never be foolled again. Those contents were a gelatinous bland fraud in a cardboard tray. Bleurgh!

A Classless Society?

Dubai is a cultural melting-pot. Cliched, but true. Up to 90 per cent of the population is expatriate, and around 200 different nationalities are represented. But by far, the most foreign thing about living here is when you see people from familiar cultural backgrounds (in my case, the Western Anglo type) who have adopted a set of completely different behaviours to those they’d get away with at home.

The offensive text, several hours before being removed

Take for instance, this invitation currently doing the rounds on Twitter. It’s for a typically English celebration of the upcoming Royal Wedding and has all the trademarks of a very British affair: a garden party at the Polo Club with street-party theme, royal memorabilia on sale and Britpop on the dancefloor.

Rule Britannia, they say! Pass me a Pimms!

But then, have a look at the pricing structure: 450AED, or 300 for the booze-less option. Children, only 100AED.

“Entry for maids is AED 100 (including children’s buffet and non-alcoholic drinks) when accompanying their sponsor family, or free entry without refreshments.”

Like others commenting on Twitter, I don’t know which part of this is the most offensive: a) that maids are singled out (and indeed called ‘maids’) b) that their price includes only a kid’s meal or c) that the option of being too tight to even provide them with food is even presented!

I don’t like to judge anyone by their cultural or socio-economic background, but this betrays an appalling attitude towards home-help. No one on the prospective guest-list for this event would have a similar level of domestic assistance ‘back home’. Nor likely, the disposable income. Money certainly doesn’t buy class and some of these types would do well to remember their roots.

(Thanks for the heads-up: @razzap , @tomgara, @gerald_d, @dubaiwriter )

UPDATE: Several hours later, after a terse reality-check by way of email from @razzap (and others?), the organisers, Dubai Reunited, have removed the reference to maids. Presumably their entry fee is now ‘available on request’.

Travels on foot

Dubai is a notoriously unfriendly city for pedestrians. Most areas simply have no footpaths (/pavements/sidewalks). Those wanting to take to the streets are forced to do literally that, and walk along the roadway, or the dirt and rubble beside it. (Manicured verges? I don’t think so.) Yes, Dubai is very good at creating basic working infrastructure overnight, but the finishing touches often take years to complete. Temporary barriers are a permanent sight in every locale.

The opening of the Dubai Metro in September 2009 – and the subsequent roll-out of all stations on the Red Line over the next year – gave hope to wannabe pedestrians too. The stations along Dubai’s main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, were built with footbridges, so the metro line could be accessed from either side. Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) assured the city that these footbridges would be accessible to everyone (not just metro commuters) 24 hours a day, as discussed in this Gulf News article.

This exciting revelation would mean residents in Jumeirah Lake Towers could cross over SZR to eat in the Marina. Or that I could walk to work from The Greens to Media City.

I attempted this yesterday for the first time, giving myself a good hour to walk the 3km to work. There was a section of sand for about a few hundred metres, but otherwise, the walk was paved, and easy to manage. I arrived at Nakheel Station, outside the entrance to Emirates Golf Course and approached the stairs, but the automatic doors didn’t recognise my presence. I reversed and approached again, but was denied access, as was the case at each of the entrances.

Friday is the Muslim Holy Day and in Dubai, metro services don’t start until after 1pm (as opposed to 6am for the other six days a week). It would seem that the footbridges are not open to the public for general use, but are only open during metro operating hours. I returned home and grabbed my car keys, for the 7 minute drive to work.

Aside: When looking up the operating hours, I googled “Dubai Metro” and found that the RTA’s official website ranks around fourth in results, after several from a site called dubaimetro.eu. A bit of search engine optimisation needed?

Unglamorous travel

Growing up in Sydney and living as an expat for most of the past ten years, I’m quite used to the long-haul flight. I’m quietly amused when Europeans express how arduous they find a four or six hour flight. The key to surviving ten to twelve hours in the air (or five hours transiting inside an airport terminal) is not to peak too early.

As soon as I get in a plane I try to own my tiny little bubble of space (this girl is no business class traveller). Then, I assess what amusements are available: in-flight entertainment? Interactive or not? Magazines? English or not… If none of the above apply, I’m left to whatever novel and newspaper I’ve brought with me. Lucky I’m a good sleeper.

I’m not a fan of Air China. Before even taking off I had discovered grains of rice stuck to the blanket I’d been given. Then, upon opening the magazine, I realised it had become attached to me by the wad of crusty old gum stuck on the corner of it. Not impressed. It’s hard to own a space that revolts you.

Likewise, strategy is important in transit. I assess the smoking situation first, then coffee, then wi-fi capabilities as prerequisites: free? how strong? how much censorship?

Duty-free shopping rarely figures, I have to admit. Except if I’ve forgotten something, or to sniff around at local artisan-type stuff. I wasn’t going to sniff one item I discovered last night at DXB: a product packed with enough herbs and spices to make The Colonel envious. A product that goes some way to explaining why men in Dubai have the reputation of punching above their weight, perhaps.

Right now, I’m an hour into a four-and-a-half hour layover at Beijing International. It took me forty-five minutes to sign up for free wi-fi using a complicated passport scanning machine (the first one of which was broken). Then I discovered I couldn’t even get my social media fix as Facebook and Twitter are blocked. But to be fair, I did know this, and at least I was able to check-in with FourSquare.

Then to find coffee. There aren’t many airports in the world where you have to trek from one end to the other to find caffeine but there is a distinct lack of Starbucks, Costa, Pret a Manger etc at Beijing Capital. I don’t believe I even spotted a McDonalds in my marching. Lucky Lei Cafe came to my rescue, with a bitter cup of something I winced at with first mouthful. At least now I can think.

The smoking rooms here are not too bad here however, as far as those dens of iniquity go. Well-ventilated, with lighters on hand. Convenient, given that Customs managed to locate four lighters in my hand luggage and stole every one of them. Two unopened bottles of water taken too, that were purchased at the departure gate in Dubai. I don’t know what they think I could’ve done to them in the mean time to make them a threat. But then, I remember a strange instance in Shanghai a few years ago before boarding the Maglev train.

The surly guard told me if I wanted to keep the water I had to take a sip of it in front of him before proceeding. The logic is bizarre – obviously to prove to him it didn’t contain any chemicals of a poisoning nature. Not the time to crack jokes, but I do wonder what would’ve happened if I doubled over, gasping and clutching my throat.

So, this has taken up another thirty minutes. Onwards and upwards to the consideration of food. Maybe after another cigarette.

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan Eve – As we were waiting for the moon committee to either make their sighting (or make the call regardless, based on the Saudi decision) I thought to check with colleagues regarding the Ramadan dress code. Last year, working for a European company, I was told to make sure elbows and knees are covered. Now, working for the government, where I am in a very small minority of non-Muslims, I expected it may be wrist to ankle. They laughed at the suggestion and told me what I had on was fine – T-shirt, cropped trousers and sandals.

Ramadan 1 – Really struggled to fill my morning. Work hours shortened to 3-8:30pm. Made a mental check as I left the house that I wasn’t doing anything haram. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise I’d been chewing gum until I’d almost finished driving to work.

Ramadan 2 – The iftar buffet at work is pretty extraordinary. At around 6:30pm, those who are fasting (the large majority) make their way to the cafeteria to load up their plates. Then, in true TV studio form, a countdown ensues as we head towards 6:58pm (official commencement of Iftar – the breaking of the fast). One minute… thirty seconds… 15… 10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!

Ramadan 3 – First weekend day of Ramadan (i.e. Friday). We were booked wakeboarding. I wore my incredibly long boardshorts in honour. They’re also too big for me and wouldn’t have been too demure had they come off and fallen down around my ankles. The Marine Club was happy to let us smoke outside. I guess there wouldn’t be too many devout Muslims at the beach on the holiest day of the week during Ramadan. Especially when swimming is forbidden during daylight hours for risk of letting any water pass the lips.

Ramadan 4 – Slightly dusty after last night’s house party at a friend’s place. There was plenty of alcohol flowing freely. And music. Went to lunch with a friend at the Media Rotana. The blinds were drawn and the door of the restaurant closed so as not to expose the general public to those eating. We could eat whatever we wanted however. They even brought us a wine list! The smoking room was the Iftar tent on the roof. No A/C…

Ramadan 5 – Sunday and back to work. Producing a 15 minute bulletin is only half the work. Still, it’s not very easy to come by local news these days. Interviews are tough as many have packed up shop for the Holy Month. It was Indian Independence Day today and despite a lunchtime celebration, by 3pm the Consulate-General was empty and the only person there to answer a phone was a security guard. Needless to say, he wasn’t able to help connect me to a media rep.

Ramadan 6 – I braved the gym today. I was slightly hesitant to go down there. Would I need to duck off to the bathroom to take a swig from my water bottle? Or, as a friend suggested, cover my head in a towel to have a sip. When I arrived it was empty save for a cleaner and I managed to communicate my concern to him and he said it was fine to drink water. Again, the only people who can view my gym are those making use of the swimming pool. Still, I wore a T-shirt and 3/4 trackies rather than a singlet top and bike shorts. I raced out to the mall without refuelling and realised I was very hungry. I had to indulge in my first clandestine sandwich eaten in the privacy of… the ladies loo. I was sitting there scoffing my sandwich thinking how dreadful the predicament was. One must plan ahead.

Ramadan 7 – Week One, khalas. There’s been a bit of a pattern set so far. I’ve been going to the bar at the hotel next door at least twice a day, during my very limited work hours. This form of smoko is even more sociable than it usually is. At any point in time there’s a whole congregation of my colleagues there, all getting a nicotine fix while topping up on caffeine or even a forbidden bottle of water. I may now be a daily regular at the Icon bar, but at least it’s not driving me to drink.

Ramadan 8 – Went out on the town last night. There is a common assumption that nightlife ceases to exist during the Holy Month. Not true.  Music is supposed to be more subdued (think chillout, not techno) and alcohol isn’t usually served until Iftar, but nightlife goes on. There are fewer punters around, sure, because many people take holidays as business is slow, but it’s certainly not difficult to find a watering hole.

Ramadan 9 – To drink or not to drink? I had to run errands for hours today, and drove 150km before going to work this afternoon. One task involved a trip to the Outlet Mall which is way out in the desert. I was parched. I avoided drinking water in the car, because I don’t have tinted windows but on relaying this tale to a mate he said that he drinks and smokes without restraint whilst in the car. Anyone else have any thoughts?

Ramadan 10 – I went for a wander around the Mall of the Emirates today and was surprised to see the number of cafes and food outlets selling takeaways. There were no tables or chairs setup, but lots of people were purchasing cups of coffee in cardboard cups,  and cakes and sandwiches in paper bags. I saw a couple of people downing their drinks in the middle of the mall and was pretty shocked. OK, tourists wouldn’t know they’re not allowed to imbibe in public during daylight hours, but shouldn’t serving staff make it plain that it’s only to be consumed behind closed doors?

Ramadan 11 – Headed out onto my balcony for a cup of coffee and a cigarette today, as I always do, because I have no one who can see in (unless they’re out on the golf course with binoculars). A chopper flew overhead and I had a sense of mild anxiety that I was being checked up on. As far as I know the only helicopters that are allowed in that airspace are police/military. Do you think they could be doing Ramadan rule-breaking checks? *Shiver*

Ramadan 12 – Back to work today. Going down in the lift to the car park I shared it was two Japanese girls. One of them was sucking loudly on a sweet of some kind. To educate or not? I’m not offended (I’m not fasting after all) but she clearly didn’t know that you’re not allowed to eat in public. I refrained. Must try to focus less on the restrictions to eating. Will get more cultural from now on, I promise.

Belt Up!

Not the only dummies I'm referring to

Going for an evening walk in my unusually peaceful neighborhood, I noticed some spectacularly bad parental road behaviour last night. Let it be understood that there is all manner of bad behaviour on the roads of Dubai and that irresponsible driving with children in the car is also, unfortunately, par for the course.

The thing that drew my surprise and ire last night was above and beyond the normal. A 4×4 was cruising along a street with a 60kph speed limit. I was at a pedestrian crossing waiting for it to pass. What drew my attention to it was that it had its sun roof open and two children were standing up, with the roof at their waist height. The SUV approached a speed hump in typical fashion – that is, without slowing down. It attacked  the bump at the same speed and I actually saw the children bounce. They squealed in delight and waved their arms around.

I was so shocked as I crossed the road my jaw was agape. I noticed another woman crossing opposite me bearing a similar expression of horror. We exchanged looks and expressed our disbelief to each other.

As mentioned, irresponsible parents abound on Dubai roads. You will frequently see children who ride unrestrained and are permitted to climb around the cabin, from back to front seats and interact with the driver. Sometimes the driver is also on the phone. Often they are also speeding.

I’ve seen many babies placed on laps, in the front passenger seat, with not a safety seat in sight.

The explanations for this stupidity centre around there being no culture of driver education in the UAE, and no law preventing children being unrestrained in a vehicle.

In fact child safety education campaigns for motorists are often left to the private sector. Last year, The National newspaper ran a ‘Road to Safety’ campaign in July, calling on the Government, drivers, and pedestrians to make the Emirates’ roads safer. In March this year, BMW sponsored the ‘Stay Alert. Stay Alive’ program which emphasised the importance of child restraints.

I grew up in a country where road safety campaigns have always taken a large chunk of money from the public purse and thankfully so. Strict policing of child restraint was also consistently applied.

Remarkably, it was only in February this year that the Director of the UAE’s Federal Traffic Department, Brigadier General Ghaith al Zaabi, announced that seat belts for children would become mandatory, and that it wouldn’t come into effect until 2011 when the legislation had been drafted.

Figures for the number of children killed on the roads are not easy to come by, probably because the UAE does not keep those statistics. The Brigadier General said “hundreds” die each year on the roads.

Health Authority Abu Dhabi says 44 children under 17 died on that emirate’s roads alone in 2009.

According to UAE University, that represented  63 per cent of all child deaths in Abu Dhabi.

Here’s one final staggering figure: according to the same research by UAE University, 98 per cent of children are not restrained when travelling in a car.

Skipping the Light Blingtastic

It’s now around 16 months since I arrived in this centre-of-all-things-shiny, which prompts reflection (ahem, sorry).

I remember a conversation with a good friend about style and personal taste, back when I landed here. We were discussing the merits of a particular fashion accessory which she liked and I said it was too blingy for me and explained that I preferred more understated, classic accoutrements. She said that she used to as well, but that Dubai encouraged one’s inner-bling fairy to express herself. I wholeheartedly denied this would happen and insisted I was a plain and simple girl (aesthetically-speaking, in any case).

This year’s Australia Day Ball was held in the Grand Hyatt’s Al Ameera ballroom. I walked in and remarked at how tastefully it was decorated. Then a little voice piped up inside my head and sarcastically reminded me that I’d appraised it quite differently when I was there the last time, for the Anzac Ball only nine months earlier. I had walked in and was blown away by its gaudiness, its glitz, the ornateness of its detail, the sheer number of crystals and carved wood features.

Had I been so over-exposed to Dubai’s bling, that in less than a year my tastes had changed so much?

I remember being disappointed when I arrived, at the lack of authenticity in architecture. Even in the historic Bastakiya area of Dubai the ‘traditional’ houses with their central wind-towers were only replicas. I made a conscious decision in those early weeks while walking around the Madinat Jumeirah retail and entertainment complex that I would have to stop rejecting ‘fake’ in search of ‘authentic’ because in this nation that only stopped being nomadic thirty-odd years ago, there is no architectural heritage. Instead I realised I’d simply have to learn to appreciate the quality inauthentic.

But back to my style metamorphosis. I pondered my wardrobe. Additions over the

Gold Baby Phat Stilettos

The Gold Baby Phat Stilettos

past few months have included no less than three sequined tops and two pairs of gold shoes (including the famed Baby Phat stilettos).I now own designer sunglasses for the first time in my life, and live in a very very nice apartment with 180 degree golf course views, a full gym and three swimming pools.

The real question is, will I be able to return to the simple life when I return to normal society? Or will it be as ridiculous as Paris and Nicole trying to do normal in The Simple Life?

The New Pad

So, this is the life.  I feel like an incredibly lucky girl to be living with Jules here in the Fairways. She has spent a lot of effort on setting this apartment up and it’s lovely. The view is sensational, the position and facilities are fabulous and I have friends close by. Perfect really, just perfect.

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